In late January, as popular protests shook pro-American regimes in the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad boasted to the Wall Street Journal that he had nothing to fear. Assad argued that unlike the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, he did not seek to please the United States and his foreign policy choices made him more “closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” But by mid-March, protests erupted in Daraa, a southern town near the border with Jordan that has suffered under corrupt officials and economic neglect by the central government. Like other protests convulsing the Arab world, these demonstrations were driven by local grievances and not concerns about Syria’s foreign policy.
On March 6 security forces in Daraa arrested a group of teenagers who had scrawled graffiti on a wall—a phrase they had seen used by the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want the fall of the regime.” The security forces probably thought nothing of the arrests; it was a reflex move by low-level members of an autocratic regime that has been in power for nearly forty-one years. But this incident set off the most serious challenge to the Baathist regime since the 1980s. Within a week of the arrests, large protests erupted in Daraa, which led to clashes with security forces and dozens of casualties. Assad and his advisers botched the initial response: the president failed to offer condolences to the families of those killed or to visit Daraa, setting off a new round of protests, which spread to other parts of Syria. As the crackdown intensified, demonstrators also shifted their rhetoric from demands for “freedom” and “dignity”—and an end to abuses by the security forces—to calls for Assad’s overthrow.
Assad’s boast to the Journal was partly true: he does have greater popular support than other Middle Eastern rulers ousted by recent uprisings, such as Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. For Syrians worried about the carnage in Iraq, Assad’s Baathist government offered security, even as it arrested prodemocracy activists and stifled any hint of opposition. But as his crackdown intensified and he continued to ignore the need for fundamental change after four decades of rule by his family, Assad squandered much of this political capital. It wasn’t until April 21 that he finally lifted the state of emergency in place since 1963 and disbanded the draconian security courts associated with it. (In practice, these steps do little to restrict the power of various security agencies, because Syria has other laws that guarantee members of the secret police immunity for virtually any crime committed in the line of duty.)
Assad’s response to the protests—a violent crackdown followed by token concessions, such as appointing a new cabinet—is modeled on a major principle that kept his father in power for three decades: the Syrian regime does not make compromises under pressure, whether external or internal. Assad also likely studied the initial response to protests in Tunisia and Egypt and concluded that by not cracking down forcefully, the rulers there appeared weak and encouraged protesters to broaden their demands. Assad has been deft at dealing with external pressure on Syria, applying the lessons of his father’s foreign policy: stay firm, do not give ground so as to avoid appearing weak, and grind down your opponents. But today he is facing unprecedented internal pressure rooted in grievances over government repression, corruption, a weak economy and lack of civil liberties. He cannot just hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.
After lifting the emergency law, Assad warned that demonstrations would no longer be tolerated, and he directed his security forces to fire on protesters who gathered across the country after Friday prayers on April 22. Forces killed at least 120 people. By April 25, he had expanded the crackdown, sending tanks and thousands of troops to seal off Daraa. The clampdown there echoed the Baathist regime’s history of using extreme violence to suppress opposition. In 1982 Hafez Assad dispatched troops to the city of Hama to put down an Islamist uprising, leveling sections of the city and killing at least 10,000 people. Thousands were imprisoned or expelled—and Assad had sent the message that he was willing to use brute force to remain in power.
Today, Bashar Assad’s main goal is to preserve the rule of his Alawite regime in a Sunni-dominated country of 22 million. (The Alawites, about 12 percent of Syria’s population, are an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.) Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, it is improbable that the Syrian military leadership will abandon Assad. Most army generals and top security officials are Alawite, and their fortunes are tied to Assad’s survival. Syria is also home to Christian, Druze and Shiite minorities—about 15 percent of the population—and they tend to support the Alawite regime. Along with many secular Sunnis, these minorities look to Assad as a source of stability, and they fear that his fall would precipitate a civil war. While the current wave of protests has been partly inspired by Sunni preachers in towns like Daraa, Syria is not facing an Islamist uprising. Like other rebellions in the Arab world, the largest protests have taken place after Friday prayers. But many secular Sunnis, especially merchants and professionals in Damascus and Aleppo, are on the sidelines. It is unclear whether they still support Assad, but they fear the lack of an alternative and the prospect of sectarian fighting and revenge killings. If these Sunnis take to the streets in sustained, large-scale protests, Assad’s regime will face grave danger.
If Assad does fall, the reverberations would be felt across the Middle East. Syria is not rich in oil and has little economic clout. The regime derives its power from its strategic position and carefully nurtured alliances. Syria has played the role of a regional spoiler and Arab nationalist standard-bearer since 1970, when Hafez Assad rose to power in a military coup. When Hafez died in 2000 and was succeeded by Bashar, many believed the soft-spoken ophthalmologist could never balance the regional cards as masterfully as his father. But the younger Assad has grown comfortably into the role of strongman. He did not have much time to master regional dynamics before he confronted a serious external challenge. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration turned its attention to Damascus as another candidate for regime change. Syria meddled in Iraq, nurtured Palestinian groups opposed to negotiations with Israel and dominated its smaller neighbor Lebanon. (The current power struggle is unlikely to reduce Syrian influence in Lebanon. Any regime in Damascus is going to view Lebanon as vital to Syrian security and will seek to protect its interests there.)
As Washington sought to isolate Damascus, some Arab powers—especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt—became hostile to Assad and his growing reliance on Iran. The Bush administration imposed economic sanctions in 2004, accusing Syria of sheltering Iraqi Baathist leaders and allowing Islamic militants to cross into Iraq and fight US forces. The US policy of sanctions and isolation accelerated after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, for which Washington blamed Syria. In response to the cold shoulder from the United States and its Arab allies, Assad became more dependent on Iran, which helped shore up the Syrian economy with construction investments and cheap oil. Damascus also enhanced its links with Hamas, Hezbollah and the renegade Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Assad calculated that these alliances would help him shape events in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq—and would be useful bargaining chips in any future negotiations with the United States.
By 2009, Assad had waited out the Bush administration and was beginning to maneuver himself out of international isolation. He had learned how to survive under sanctions, and he became resilient to international pressure and the threat of more sanctions. Perhaps that experience—and the confidence that the West has no appetite for another military intervention in the region—has persuaded Assad that he can get away with a bloody crackdown. There are dark days ahead for Syria.