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Could The New 'Age Of Rage' Sweep Syria?

  • Robert Tait

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) took over from his father Hafez in 2000.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) took over from his father Hafez in 2000.

Hermetically sealed from Western influence, alienated from the United States, and still technically at war with Israel, Syria is the great unknown in the contagion of rage spreading across the Middle East.

Its alliance with Iran and anti-American orientation distinguish it from Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries -- now including Jordan and Yemen -- afflicted by the wave of popular unrest that threatens to transform the political landscape of one of the world's most volatile regions.

But that has not stopped opposition movements from trying to organize "Day of Rage" protests against President Bashar al-Assad's regime modeled on those staged in neighboring countries. Protest groups have reportedly been using social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to sign up participants for demonstrations in the capital, Damascus, and other cities on February 4 and 5.

With King Abdullah in neighboring Jordan firing his government and President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen following Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's lead by vowing to step down in 2013 -- all in response to mass demonstrations -- pro-democracy advocates hope that Assad will be next down in a regional domino process.

It does not seem an unreasonable expectation. Superficially, Syria shares many of the hallmarks of its neighbors; relatively poor, repressive, undemocratic and with a leader who inherited power after his father, Hafez al-Assad, died in 2000 after 30 years in charge -- identical, some say, to how Mubarak planned to pass the reins to his son Gamal after a similar period at the helm.

Yet such parallels may be misleading. Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East studies at the London School of Economics, says Syria has vital differences with Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, that make it less susceptible to the current spirit of revolt:

Much Smaller Society

"Syria is a different country than Egypt," Gerges says. "First of all, it's a much smaller society than Egypt. The level of poverty is on a lesser scale. It's fragmented along sectarian lines as opposed to social and ideological lines. And it is a very repressive society, so in this particular sense, even though anything is possible these days, I don't expect Syria to experience a similar process of social upheaval to that of Tunisia and Egypt."

Assad told "The Wall Street Journal" on January 31 that his regime was immune from the rage because, unlike countries affected thus far, it reflected popular hostility to the United States and Israel, with which Syria is at odds over ownership of the Golan Heights. "Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people," Assad said. "This is the core issue. When you diverge ... you will have this problem, this vacuum that creates disturbances."

That, however, seems an eccentric reading of the causes of the recent upheavals, which have exhibited few signs of overt anti-Americanism or pro-Palestinian solidarity. Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, interprets it as the sign of a discomfited leader unsure what to expect in a feverish political climate.

"It's obvious that President Bashar al-Assad is very concerned about this," Shehadi says. "He's sort of in denial and he is saying that this cannot happen in Syria because Syria is anti-American and anti-Israeli.... [But] we've never seen any signs of that. People seem to be talking more about ending autocratic regimes and about freedom."

Yet, Gerges says, the Syrian president may have been hinting -- with good reason -- more at the greater brutality and control of his security forces, which may be relied upon to ruthlessly suppress any challenge to the ruling Ba'ath Party and keep a lid on Syria's simmering domestic tensions.

'Security Forces In Control'

"I think what he's trying to say is that his security forces are in control. He made it very clear that there is no cleavage between the security apparatus, the government, and the people because of foreign policy," Gerges says. "He said many Syrian people view his regime as legitimate. But there are many cleavages in Syria. Syria is not democratic. Syria is an authoritarian state. I would argue that the Syrian security apparatus would fight all the way, to the last man, to defend the regime because of the communal nature of Syrian society. It is deeply divided along Sunni-Alawite terms."

The specter of a merciless crackdown against any display of public dissent has echoes in the bloody suppression by Assad's father of a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired uprising in the town of Hama in 1982, in which an estimated 25,000 were killed.

The Syrian security apparatus, analysts say, is more repressive than those of its neighbors, resembling the brutal domestic intelligence services deployed by former communist states like East Germany and Romania during the Cold War. As a result, civil society and an opposition press -- which have survived in Egypt despite the close attentions of the Mubarak regime -- are virtually absent in Syria.

'No Vibrant Opposition'

"Even though many Syrians would tell you that they would like to live in a democracy, there is no vibrant opposition along similar lines to that of Egypt," Gerges says. "There is no vibrant civil society like that of Egypt. There is hardly any free press whatsoever in Syria. There are no free associations like there are in Egypt -- attorneys, engineers, doctors, what have you."

Shehadi agrees that it may be simplistic to expect Syria to fall like a domino, comparing it more to Saddam Hussein's Iraq than to Egypt. But while Egyptians may draw strength from an active if restricted opposition, he says he believes the continuing ripples from the overthrow of Saddam's regime following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 may have stripped Assad's government of its once-invincible aura -- rendering it vulnerable over a longer period:

"I wouldn't invest long-term in Syria at the moment," Shehadi says. "You have a very solid-looking regime which will look very strong and even look stronger when there is opposition because the stronger it gets the more oppressive it will get. [But] the appearances are very misleading and because it cannot bend it can only collapse. It's so unpredictable. I wouldn't bet on it."

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