Syrian Regime Unlikely to Fall

As protests demanding political and economic reform continue across the Middle East and North Africa, one may justifiably ask how popular demonstrations will affect the regime in Damascus. Those who see a domino effect that began with the ousting of Ben Ali from Tunisia wonder if Syria will be part of the series of dominoes in the current wave of protests.

To be sure, the ruling Baath party is fearful of unrest in Syria, and has adopted an approach of providing economic benefits to keep would-be protestors away from the streets. For example, a social relief fund has been established with an annual fund of 10-12 billion Syrian liras, electricity subsidies for state employees have been increased, an employment program for university graduates has been approved, and taxes on staple foods have been reduced.

Yet, even without taking such measures, is the government in Damascus likely to face major protests of the scale we have witnessed in Egypt or Tunisia? Unfortunately, such a prospect seems improbable for the time being, for two reasons:-

The nature of the regime: Baathist ideology has never been more than a façade for minority despotism in the name of pan-Arab nationalism. In Baathist Iraq, the regime served as a cover for Sunni Arab rule at the expense of Shi'a Arab majority, even though the former compromised no more than 20% of Iraq's population. In Syria, the ruling family and the political and military elite all come from the minority Alawite sect, a sub-group of Shi'a Islam which forms roughly 10% of Syria's population.  At present, the minority-controlled regime still rules with an iron fist over disenfranchised Sunnis who make up a 74% majority, as it has done so since attaining power in 1963. The regime thus survives by manipulating tensions between the various religious and ethnic groups in the country.  As in Baathist Iraq, many Christians belong to the professional middle and upper-middle classes, and like the Alawites view Assad as their protector.

Hence, unless opposition forces can unite a significant segment of the population from all of Syria's ethnic and religious groups, there is a considerable risk that a potential uprising could turn into an ugly sectarian affair, culminating in something like the infamous Hama massacre of 1982 that killed around 20,000 Syrians after an unsuccessful six-year Sunni insurgency campaign spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Syria's Isolation: Since the 1980s, Syria has been much more isolated from the outside world than most nations in the Middle East and North Africa. For instance, in spite of all his faults, Mubarak did allow a relatively significant amount of press freedom in Egypt, such that the country was ranked highest in the Arab world in Freedom House's 2010 ‘Freedom of the Press' index (with a ‘Partly Free' rating) after Kuwait and Lebanon.  In addition, the international community -- and the U.S. in particular -- had some leverage over Mubarak as his regime was the recipient of billions of dollars of Western aid. Neither of these points applies to Syria. Consequently, there are no independent civil institutions, such as trade unions and student bodies, that can rally opposition to the regime, which, through strict control of media within Syria, has been able to push an image of embodying ‘resistance' to the West, and thereby win a degree of popular support.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Assad has been so successful in suppressing attempts to organize protests, including preventive arrests of opposition activists, and that the "Day of Rage" demonstrations planned by Syrian reformists for last month failed to materialize. I wish Syrian opposition activists well in their efforts to dislodge the regime in Damascus but urge for the need to appreciate a key lesson, even as I hope to be proven wrong by the Syrian people on this issue.  Namely, the uprisings we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia have not been achieving many of their aims solely because of popular discontent with high food prices, authoritarianism and corruption, all of which are major problems in Syria too.  Rather, they are also the culmination of years of work at the grassroots level by opposition activists, something that is desperately needed in Syria.
As protests demanding political and economic reform continue across the Middle East and North Africa, one may justifiably ask how popular demonstrations will affect the regime in Damascus. Those who see a domino effect that began with the ousting of Ben Ali from Tunisia wonder if Syria will be part of the series of dominoes in the current wave of protests.

To be sure, the ruling Baath party is fearful of unrest in Syria, and has adopted an approach of providing economic benefits to keep would-be protestors away from the streets. For example, a social relief fund has been established with an annual fund of 10-12 billion Syrian liras, electricity subsidies for state employees have been increased, an employment program for university graduates has been approved, and taxes on staple foods have been reduced.

Yet, even without taking such measures, is the government in Damascus likely to face major protests of the scale we have witnessed in Egypt or Tunisia? Unfortunately, such a prospect seems improbable for the time being, for two reasons:-

The nature of the regime: Baathist ideology has never been more than a façade for minority despotism in the name of pan-Arab nationalism. In Baathist Iraq, the regime served as a cover for Sunni Arab rule at the expense of Shi'a Arab majority, even though the former compromised no more than 20% of Iraq's population. In Syria, the ruling family and the political and military elite all come from the minority Alawite sect, a sub-group of Shi'a Islam which forms roughly 10% of Syria's population.  At present, the minority-controlled regime still rules with an iron fist over disenfranchised Sunnis who make up a 74% majority, as it has done so since attaining power in 1963. The regime thus survives by manipulating tensions between the various religious and ethnic groups in the country.  As in Baathist Iraq, many Christians belong to the professional middle and upper-middle classes, and like the Alawites view Assad as their protector.

Hence, unless opposition forces can unite a significant segment of the population from all of Syria's ethnic and religious groups, there is a considerable risk that a potential uprising could turn into an ugly sectarian affair, culminating in something like the infamous Hama massacre of 1982 that killed around 20,000 Syrians after an unsuccessful six-year Sunni insurgency campaign spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Syria's Isolation: Since the 1980s, Syria has been much more isolated from the outside world than most nations in the Middle East and North Africa. For instance, in spite of all his faults, Mubarak did allow a relatively significant amount of press freedom in Egypt, such that the country was ranked highest in the Arab world in Freedom House's 2010 ‘Freedom of the Press' index (with a ‘Partly Free' rating) after Kuwait and Lebanon.  In addition, the international community -- and the U.S. in particular -- had some leverage over Mubarak as his regime was the recipient of billions of dollars of Western aid. Neither of these points applies to Syria. Consequently, there are no independent civil institutions, such as trade unions and student bodies, that can rally opposition to the regime, which, through strict control of media within Syria, has been able to push an image of embodying ‘resistance' to the West, and thereby win a degree of popular support.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Assad has been so successful in suppressing attempts to organize protests, including preventive arrests of opposition activists, and that the "Day of Rage" demonstrations planned by Syrian reformists for last month failed to materialize. I wish Syrian opposition activists well in their efforts to dislodge the regime in Damascus but urge for the need to appreciate a key lesson, even as I hope to be proven wrong by the Syrian people on this issue.  Namely, the uprisings we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia have not been achieving many of their aims solely because of popular discontent with high food prices, authoritarianism and corruption, all of which are major problems in Syria too.  Rather, they are also the culmination of years of work at the grassroots level by opposition activists, something that is desperately needed in Syria.