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Sitting Pretty in Syria: Why Few Go Bashing Bashar

7 minute read
Rania Abouzeid / Damascus

In the Middle East, politics has usually been a waiting game, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, 45, is better than most at playing it. He has outlasted U.S. neocon threats of regime change, and international and Saudi-led regional isolation following the 2005 murder of ex-Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri (at the time widely blamed on Damascus), and he deftly mitigated the effects of U.S. sanctions and the Iraq war next door, while strengthening his ties to the region’s rising power broker, Iran. Now he may just ride out the youth-led revolts that are sweeping across the region.

The secular, authoritarian Baath Party regime that Assad inherited in 2000 from his late father and former President Hafez Assad is older than he is. In fact, the party is older than the majority of his country’s 22 million people. Even critics concede that Assad is popular and considered close to the country’s huge youth cohort, emotionally, ideologically and, of course, chronologically.

(See TIME’s special report “The Middle East in Revolt.”)

Unlike the ousted pro-American leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad has a hostile foreign policy toward Israel and stridently supports the Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hizballah. These positions, in line with popular Syrian sentiment, have been keenly pushed by Baathists and state media to the public to explain why other Presidents have fallen and theirs is safe. Much-publicized acts by Assad that have apparently helped endear him to the public include his driving to the Umayyad Mosque in February to take part in prayers to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and his strolling through the crowded Souq Al-Hamidiyah marketplace with a low-security profile.

Yet Syria also shares the corruption, nepotism, high unemployment, widespread poverty, repressive state-security apparatus, emergency law and lack of freedom that contributed to the fall of other Arab leaders and now threatens Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Still, in a masterful application of “good cop, bad cop” politics, Assad is viewed as a reformer even by some Syrians who may despise the regime, blaming its shortcomings on his father’s still present “old guard.” In Syria, it’s different, says Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. “The majority want and request that the President undertake reform within the party, the government and the security agencies. That is important.”

(See pictures of protests across the Middle East.)

There are several opportunities on the calendar for Assad to take the initiative and institute real change (which he has often spoken of), from a position of strength rather than the desperate last-minute concessions that other Arab leaders offered only after their emboldened youth were already on the streets and in sight of victory. There are municipal and parliamentary elections slated for this year, providing the President with a chance to transform Syria from a one-party state ruled by the Baath and its various fronts since 1963 with only a weak, fractured and frequently imprisoned opposition into a country with real political parties. The Baath Party conference, expected in the coming months, is another convenient occasion.

Mazen Darwish, who founded and ran the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression until it was closed by authorities in 2009, says Assad has a “golden opportunity” to make core, rather than cosmetic, reforms. “In Syria, we’ve been talking about reforms for the past decade,” he says, “as if we just want to add oil to an engine, to help it function better. Today I think the situation has shifted to the engine itself, to the nature of the government, its foundations.”

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Still, not everyone agrees that the Baath regime can be reformed from within or that such changes — assuming they happen — will be enough. Such concerns may actually handicap reform, says Ayman Abdel-Nour, a Syrian dissident who edits www.all4syria.info from Dubai. “I think the President knows the need for change, but the apparatus is convincing him that if he starts compromising with the people, that [process] cannot be stopped because they will ask always for more,” he says. George Jabbour, a former parliamentarian and adviser to former President Hafez Assad, says the regime will neither fall nor falter. “Everybody overseas is calling and asking me, ‘Is Syria next?’ ” he says. “It’s wishful thinking.”

There are several reasons that both Abdel-Nour and Jabbour may be right. Decades of tight control have ensured that there is no real opposition to speak of, no obvious alternative to the current powers that be. The Baath’s opponents are a motley crew of aging intellectuals, most of whom cycle in and out of prison every few years (“There are places reserved for them; the only thing that changes is the names,” says human-rights activist Qurabi), in addition to cowed Islamists, long-repressed Kurds and exiled or estranged members of Assad’s family or inner clique. The last include his uncle Rifaat Assad and Abdel-Halim Khaddam, one of Hafez Assad’s longtime Vice Presidents.

(See the Syrian style of repression.)

Syrians don’t have to look far to see what wholesale regime change looks like. It isn’t pretty. The country hosts well over a million Iraqi refugees, the largest number in the region. Iraq, with its multiethnic, multisectarian society, more closely resembles Syria’s than the relatively homogenous populations of Egypt or Tunisia. Assad’s minority Alawite sect has long governed the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, which comprises about 70%, as well as the Christians, Kurds and other Shi’ites. There are many fault lines. “God forbid, God forbid the Baath falls here. We will wish we were as unstable as Iraq,” says a 34-year-old man who requested anonymity. “Iraq will look like a paradise.”

Also unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, which have a history of relatively vibrant civil societies, Syrian non-governmental organizations and parties, although present in small numbers, are unlicensed and therefore illegal, ensuring that the only group with the infrastructure to quickly and effectively mobilize citizens on the streets remains the Baath.

The fear factor cannot be underestimated. When asked, Syrians can quickly recount two popular revolts that were brutally repressed, one against the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 by the elder Assad, the other against stateless Kurds in Qamishli in 2004 by his son Bashar.

Although there are no shortage of groups hoping to settle scores with the Syrian regime, it’s unclear if they have the capability to do so. Analysts say the military in Syria is more likely to emulate the Libyan example, attacking protesters with brute force, rather than emulate its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, which sided with the protesters rather than the regimes. “The majority of the army leaders and intelligence are from one sect [the Alawite], so the Libyan example is more likely,” says Abdel-Nour, “but for sure it will not be united if massacres are committed.”

(See TIME’s interactive map “Rage Across the Region.”)

For now, the regime is offering carrots while not hiding its sticks. It recently backpedalled on its decision to trim subsidies, unexpectedly raising heating-fuel assistance for 2 million public-sector employees. It also began issuing small cash payments to 420,000 of Syria’s poorest families. Facebook was unblocked, although some rights activists say the move was more about enabling authorities to better monitor the site as well as to ascertain if calls for protests were coming from within or outside the country. Jabbour says the moves weren’t tied to regional events. “It wasn’t a new thing. You can’t say they were scared, so they acted,” he says.

In a region that thinks of power in terms of generations, many people here don’t place Assad in the same category as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali or Libya’s Gaddafi, pointing out that the Syrian President has “only” been at the helm for about a decade. But the lesson of the uprisings is that anything is possible; and the old ways, including biding one’s time, may no longer be viable — even for a young President.

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