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As Protests Mount, Is There a Soft Landing for Syria?

7 minute read
Joshua Landis

The Baathist regime that has ruled Syria for 48 years is on the ropes. Even President Bashar al-Assad himself seems to have been shocked by the level of violence used by Syria’s security forces to suppress demonstrations that began a week ago, and on Thursday afternoon his office announced unprecedented concessions to popular demands. But the question of whether those concessions assuage protesters’ concerns or prove to be too little too late may be answered in the escalation of clashes that followed Friday prayers, with a number of demonstrators reportedly killed when security forces again opened fire.

The protests began a week ago in the dusty agricultural town of Dara’a, near the border with Jordan, over the arrests of high school students for scrawling antigovernment graffiti. Those demonstrations quickly spun out of control, with thousands joining in, inspired by the wave of revolutions that have rocked the Arab world, to demand political freedoms and an end to emergency rule and corruption. The government responded brutally, killing over 30 demonstrators and wounding many more, according to activists. Gruesome videos of the crackdown, disseminated via the Internet in recent days, have enraged Syrians from one end of the country to the other.

(See “With Syria on the Brink, Assad Promises Reform.”)

On Thursday, the regime began to try a different tack, with Assad’s spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban offering the President’s condolences to the people of Dara’a and acknowledging their “legitimate” demands, even as she insisted that reports of the scale of protests and the number of casualties had been exaggerated. Oddly, the President has himself not appeared on TV since Syria’s political troubles began, apparently hoping to protect himself from criticism. But Shaaban insisted that Assad was completely against the use of live fire in suppressing the demonstrations. She emphasized that she had been present in the room when the President ordered the security agencies to refrain from shooting at protesters — “not one bullet.”

But the only promised concessions that can be taken to the bank are pay rises for state employees of up to 30%, and the release of all activists arrested in the past weeks. Other reforms, which the regime undertook to study, are job creation, press freedom, permitting the formation of opposition parties and lifting emergency law. Should they be implemented, those changes would be nothing short of revolutionary. But many activists have already dismissed Assad’s offer as a stalling tactic to make it through the next few days of funerals and demonstration. The opposition had called for Syrians to assemble in large numbers in mosques for a day of “dignity” and demonstrations.

In order to mount a serious challenge to the regime’s iron grip on power, opposition activists will have to move their protest actions beyond Dara’a and its surrounding villages, and extend it to the major cities. Their attempt to do so presents the country with a choice of great consequence: they must decide if Syria is more like Egypt and Tunisia, where the people achieved sufficient unity to peacefully oust their rulers, or whether Syria is more like Iraq and Lebanon, which slipped into civil war and endless factionalism.

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

Like its neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, Syria is a multireligious and ethnically diverse society. President Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam of which adherents comprise just 12% of Syria’s population. The Dara’a protests prompted Alawites in the coastal city of Latakia to gather in large numbers in a central square, Dawwar az-Ziraa, to show support for their embattled President. Many have changed their Facebook profile images to a picture of Bashar. Syrian Christians and other religious minorities that together make up a further 13% of the Syrian population have also shown broad support for Assad, who has defended secularism. Many have worked themselves into a panic about the possibility that political upheaval will empower Islamists, as happened in Iraq. Almost 1 million Iraqi refugees live in Syria, their presence a cautionary tale of regime change that has gone wrong.

Key to a successful revolution is splitting Syria’s elites, which comprise the Alawite officer class of the security forces and the great Sunni merchant and industrial families, who preside over the economy as well as Syria’s moral and cultural universe. If those elites stick together, it is difficult to envisage widespread but scattered popular revolts overturning the regime. But an Alawite-Sunni split within the elites would doom the regime. The cohesion of those elites, though, is a question of social class as much as of confession.

The centrality of Dara’a in the uprising may have limited its appeal to the urban elites. The dusty border city marked by tribal loyalties, poverty and Islamic conservatism may inspire Syria’s rural masses who suffer from poverty, a prolonged drought and joblessness, but mass demonstrations there have frightened Syria’s urban elites. Even those who share anger at repressions and hope for liberation with their rural counterparts still fear the poor and the threat of disorder.

(See “Syrian Protesters Brace for a Bloody Crackdown.”)

The urban elites, in fact, see the regime itself as a dictatorship of countryfolk. The Baath Party that took power in 1963 was dominated by young military officers and rural elements that had little more than high school education and a mishmash of socialism and Arabism to guide them. Their meager education combined with resentment at the wealth and privilege of Syria’s urban elites provided a lethal brew, prompting nationalization of land and businesses.

Having been brought up in privilege in Damascus, the President has more in common with the capital’s elite than he does with the Alawites of the coastal mountains who brought his father to power. When Bashar al-Assad took over after his father’s death in 2000, he began liberalizing the economy and society. High culture has boomed. Foreign imports, tourism and arts are being revived. Today, Syria is a wonderful place to be wealthy; life is fun and vibrant for the well-heeled.

For the impoverished majority, however, the picture is grim. One-third of the population lives on $2 a day or less. Unemployment is rampant, and four years of drought have reduced Syria’s eastern countryside to a wasteland of dusty and destitute towns and cities like Dara’a. The last thing wealthy Aleppines, Homsis and Damascenes want is a revolution that brings to power a new political class based in the rural poor, or for the country to slip into chaos and possible civil war.

The Arab rebellion is sorting out the countries of the Middle East, distinguishing those that have become true nations, with a cohesive political community and an ability to leave behind the postcolonial era of dictatorship and repression, from those doomed to struggle by divisions of ethnicity, sect and tribe. Lebanon and Iraq have both stumbled. Libya is crashing before our eyes, and Yemen may also follow in a downward spiral.

In all likelihood, there is no soft landing for the Syrian regime, whether it comes sooner or later. Fearful of being pushed from power and persecuted, Alawite military leaders are likely to stick by the President. What remains to be seen is whether the Sunni elite, which has stood by the Assad family for over four decades in the name of security and stability, will continue to do so — or whether President Assad is willing to risk making profound and risky changes.

Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma, and writes the blog Syria Comment.

See how graffiti stirred the Syrian uprising.

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

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