President Bashar al-Assad is fighting for his political life, perhaps even for life itself. His brutal repression of the protest movement in Syria has earned him international condemnation. Calls for him to step down have come from President Barack Obama and from the leaders of Britain, France and Germany. The Arab world’s heavyweight, Saudi Arabia, has recalled its ambassador from Damascus, as have several of the smaller Gulf states. The UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has presented a report to the Security Council describing, in gruesome detail, the killing and torture of civilian protesters. There are moves afoot to ban imports of Syrian oil to European markets, which provides about 30 percent of the state’s income.
Yet Assad remains defiant. He seems determined to fight to the end. Undeterred by harsh repression, the Friday demonstrations have swollen week after week, and their tone has hardened. Increasingly, the strident call is for the fall of the regime. Angry protesters say that over 2,000 of their number have been killed and over 13,000 arrested, many of them savagely tortured, while the regime retorts that it is fighting a foreign-inspired “conspiracy” and that 120 security personnel have been killed by “armed gangs.” A sectarian civil war on the Iraqi or Lebanese model is every Syrian’s nightmare. No one really wants that—neither the regime nor the vast majority of the opposition. There is, however, a fringe element that believes any regime, however extreme, would be better than the present one.
The opposition faces a stark choice: either go all out to bring the regime down, as some would like, or cooperate with it in building a new and better Syria. The first course is hazardous: if the Baathist state is torn down, what will replace it? The second course requires an act of faith: it means accepting that Assad truly wants to implement radical reforms and effect a transition to democracy by means of a national dialogue. He has attempted to launch such a dialogue, but has so far failed to convince—largely because the killing has continued. In August, for example, he signed a bill introducing a multiparty system, but no such reform can be implemented while the violence persists.
The regime has not distinguished itself in the trial of strength. Slow to grasp the nature of the popular uprising, it has been incompetent in confronting it. The security services, like Assad himself, seem to have been taken by surprise. By resorting to live fire against protesters at the start, in the city of Dara’a in southern Syria, they displayed indiscipline and arrogant contempt for the lives of citizens—the very contempt that, in one country after another, has been a motor of the Arab Awakening.
The speeches Assad has given since the protests started have been public-relations disasters—far from the rousing, dramatic appeal to the nation that his supporters had expected and the occasion demanded. Above all, he has failed to rein in his brutal security services and put an end to the shootings, arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture that have aroused international condemnation. Meanwhile, the Baath Party—“leader of state and society,” according to the notorious Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution—has been virtually silent, confirming the widespread belief that it has become a hollow shell, concerned only with protecting its political monopoly, its privileges and its corrupt patronage network.
If the regime has shown itself to be weak, the opposition, however, is weaker still. It wants to challenge the system, but evidently does not yet know how to go about it—apart, that is, from staging riots and publishing videos of brutal repression by government forces. It is split in a dozen ways between secularists, civil rights activists, democrats and Islamists of various sorts; between the opposition in Syria and exiles abroad, who are among the regime’s most virulent opponents; between those who call for Western intervention and those who reject any form of foreign interference; between angry, unemployed youths in the street and venerable figures of the opposition, hallowed by years in prison, most of them in late middle age. In a gesture of conciliation, the regime lifted a travel ban on several of them, including veteran human rights campaigner Haitham al-Maleh, 81, who, to his great surprise, was allowed to leave Damascus to attend an opposition gathering in Istanbul in July. But no coherent leadership has yet emerged, some say because its members, at least those inside Syria, fear arrest.