“As Protests Mount, Is There a Soft Landing for Syria?” by Joshua Landis

As Protests Mount, Is There a Soft Landing for Syria?
Joshua Landis in Time
March 25, 2011

The regime has been rocked by protests and is offering to make changes even as it clings to power. But divisions of sect and social class mean that its fate may rest with the choices of the Sunni social elite

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 on the streets after Friday prayers.

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.

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, most importantly, Friday prayers. The opposition has 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.

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.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2061364,00.html#ixzz1HlkLDFLO

Joshua Landis is the director of Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma and author of the blog http://www.syriacomment.com

[End of story]

Live updates on towns in which demonstrations are taking place. (Lebanon Now)

Al-Arabiya reports demonstrations in Damascus, Duma, Latakia, Homs and Reka.

To read more: http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=253828#ixzz1HcGpgvIa
Only 25% of a given NOW Lebanon article can be republished. For information on republishing rights from NOW Lebanon: http://www.nowlebanon.com/Sub.aspx?ID=125478

Additional comments by readers

By the way, just now BBC and aljazeera reporters asked to leave Daraa just before prayers.

On a separate note, strange things happened today. Aljazeera usually broadcasts part of Qaradawi’s sermon every Friday during the revolutions. Today it didn’t. While Orient TV for the first time had his sermon live from Doha. And surprise surprise Qaradawi called on the Syrian people to revolt and that Gaddafi, Saleh and Bashar are the same, and the need for Muslims everywhere to support Syrian brothers! Meanwhile, Al-Bouti [most popular and senior Imam in Syria] sermon was about the need to give the promises by the government a chance and the need of calm.

How did Orient know that Qaradawi would be supporting Syria demonstrations today? Interesting. There seems to be some coordination taking place between Islamists everywhere and Syrian opposition outside. Qaradawi praised Bashar as a young educated open-minded doctor who he met during the war on Gaza. Then he followed it with “Syrians view him as a Sunni”!!! And that he is surrounded by corrupt and brutal men.

Reports on small demos in idleb and its villages. Orient reporting about a demo in Halab.

I think things will calm down later this afternoon.

If the government didn’t act yesterday with these “promises” the situation today would have been much worse.

Any indication of Syrians being tricked again with promises will be the final straw. I’ve been angry for 2 months because I was seeing this happening. The government didn’t act. If it did it would have been looking as the strongest in the region. The reaction (with same concessions) makes the gov look weak true. But at this point looking weak and giving the people their demands is much better than looking like Gaddafi….

Rula Amin from Aljazeera English in Damascus: “this is a new Syria. Not clear if people are emboldened by government concessions or because of Daraa but everyone is openly speaking up everywhere in Syria. This is a new Syria”

Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad Faces Most Serious Unrest of His Tenure
By: Leila Fadel | The Washington Post

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was facing the most serious unrest of his 11-year tenure Thursday as anti-government protests in a southwestern city threatened to escalate after a deadly crackdown….

“Every Syrian is frightened, and they don’t want to be Iraq. That’s the cautionary tale — and the government has raised the banner of security and stability for the last 40 years,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “They’re hesitating, but it seems like there is a big hole in the dike here, and the fear factor is collapsing. The latest videos streaming out are horrifying; they’re very gruesome.”

The people will either react to the violence perpetrated by security forces in Daraa or submit to the fear, Landis said.

“The government is gambling that the people will be horrified by the prospect of Iraq, and the opposition hopes that the people will be emboldened and angered and go out Friday and demand change,” he said…..

Abd el-Karim Rihawi, of the Syrian Human Rights League, said most Syrians sympathize with Assad and would prefer him to be the agent of change.

“They don’t want to destroy their country,” Rihawi said. But, he added, referring to the government, “if they insist on dealing with this movement with an iron fist, I think maybe the situation will blow up — and we can’t imagine what that will look like.”….

Peter Harling at International Crisis Group

“… A window of opportunity still exists to change these dynamics, although it is fast closing. Unlike most of his peers in the region, President Bashar Assad has accumulated significant political capital, and many Syrians are willing, for now, to give him the benefit of the doubt. In fact, a broad range of citizens – including members of the security apparatus – are desperately waiting for him to take the lead and to propose, before it is too late, an alternative to spiraling confrontation. Although he has held numerous consultations and sent some signals of impending reform through the foreign media and other officials, he has yet to assume clear and palpable leadership.

Instead, faced with an unprecedented, multi-faceted, fast-paced and critical challenge, the power apparatus at best is implementing chaotic steps that convey a sense of confusion, at worst is reacting according to well-ingrained habits. Left to its own devices, it will send precisely the wrong messages to a population that will not wait much longer for the regime to get its act together and to put forward a comprehensive and credible vision. At this point, only one thing can change swiftly, dramatically and effectively for the better, and that is the president’s own attitude…..

President Assad must show visible leadership and do so now. His political capital today depends less on his past foreign policy successes than on his ability to live up to popular expectations at a time of dangerous domestic crisis. Meanwhile, repression perpetrated under his responsibility is costing him dearly. He alone can prove that change is possible and already in the making, restore some sense of clarity and direction to a bewildered power apparatus and put forward a detailed framework for structural change. This should include several steps:

Hizbullah Member Accuses Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and America of Conspiring to Bring Down Syria and of Sending Arms into Syria

Tayyar, Lebanon
وحول أحداث درعا في سوريا إعتبر نصرالله أنّ فريق الحريري السياسي وملحقاته يلعبون بالأمن القومي اللبناني لتحقيق مصالحهم “سنردّ عليهم في الوقت المناسب، وليرقص سعد الحريري قدر ما يستطيع في البقاع خروجه من لبنان حتمي، الحريرية السياسية في لبنان إنتهت، اللعبة اصبحت مكشوفة أولى تداعيات ضرب المقاومة وحزب الله توطين الفلسطينيين كما ستكشفه وثائق “ويكيلكس” بتوطين 50 ألف في صيدا وشرقها، و50 الف أخرى في البقاع الغربي و50 الف فلسطيني في دوائر بيروت و50 الف في طرابلس أيضاً”.
وإعتبر نصرالله انّ احداث سوريا الأخيرة سكشفت المتورطين الفعليين خلال ساعات قليلة “هناك 3 جهات متورطة في احداث درعا. أميركا وإسرائيل يسعدان برؤية سوريا منقسمة ويعمّها الفوضى، فريق 13 آذار متورّط وستكشف اسماؤهم في الإعترافات بعد عدة أيام… احد النواب و 5 رجال من البقاع الغربي والشمال هم وراء إفتعال المشاكل في سوريا، وللأسف أحدهم كان من أبرز اصدقاء أجهزة المخابرات السورية”.

يكمل نصرالله حديثه: “الجزء المكمّل للمتورطين في احداث سوريا هي الأردن والسعودية.. وقد تمّ القبض على شاحنات مليئة بالذخائر آتية من الأردن الى سوريا. العملية كلّها منظمّة، والأيام ستكشف البروباغاندا الكاذبة”.

يضيف نصرالله: “سوريا خلال السنوات الأخيرة تشهد نمواً وإصلاحاً كبيرين دون وجود دين خارجي على الإطلاق، والقطاع العام في سوريا نجح بعكس مصر ودول الخليج.. في النهاية من يراهن على

Is There a Soft Landing for Syria?

The regime has been rocked by protests and is offering to make changes even as it clings to power. But divisions of sect and social class mean that its fate may rest with the choices of the Sunni social elite

Joshua Landis

<p> The Ba’athist 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 protestors, or prove to be too little too late may be answered on the streets after Friday prayers.
</p>
<p>
The protests began a week ago in the dusty agricultural town of Dera’a, near the border with Jordan, over the arrest of high-school students for scrawling anti-government 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, has  enraged Syrians from one end of the country to the other.
</p>
<p>
On Thursday, the regime began to try a different tack, with Assad’s spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban offering his 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 [EM] “not one bullet.”
</p>
<p>
But the only promised concessions that can be taken to the bank are pay raises 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 freedoms, 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 most importantly, Friday prayers. The opposition has called for Syrians to assemble in large numbers in mosques, for a day of “dignity” and demonstrations.
</p>
<p>
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 Dera’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.
</p>
<p>
Like its neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, Syria is a multi-religious and ethnically diverse society. President Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shi’ism whose 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 a million Iraqi refugees live in Syria, their presence a cautionary tale of regime-change gone wrong.
</p>
<p> ?Key to a successful revolution is splitting Syria’s elite, which comprises 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 elite would doom the regime. The cohesion of those elites, though, is a question of social class as much as of confession.
</p>
<p>
The centrality of Dera’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 frightened Syria’s urban elite. Even those that share an anger at repression and a hope for liberation with their rural counterparts still fear the poor and the threat of disorder.
</p>
<p>
The urban elites, in fact, see the regime itself as a dictatorship of country folk. The Ba’ath Party that took power in 1963 was dominated by young military officers and rural elements that had little more than high-school educations 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.
</p>
<p>
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 the arts are being revived. Today, Syria is a wonderful place to be wealthy; life is fun and vibrant for the well-heeled.
</p>
<p>
For the impoverished majority, however, the picture is grim. One third of the population lives on two dollars a day or less. Unemployment is rampant, and four years of drought has reduced Syria’s eastern countryside to a wasteland of dusty and destitute towns and cities like Dera’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.
</p>
<p>
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 post-colonial 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.
</p>
<p>
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 [EM] or whether President Assad is willing to risk making profound and risky changes.
</p>
<p>
<i>Joshua Landis is the director of Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma and author of the blog [XREF {http://www.syriacomment.com/} {Syria Comment}]</i></p>

Comments (55)


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51. Zenobia said:

Akbar Palace,
LOL nice synopsis.
I think we are waiting. I think we are waiting to see what will happen next.
The time is drawing very near that Bashar Assad will be forced to reveal his true colors.
Either he proves that he is a coward standing behind his security forces, or he must speak face to face to his people and show that he is what he has claimed to be – loyal to ALL his people and willing to stand up against his own security apparatus and forces and restrain them. He will have to prove that he is willing and able to put into action the concessions that were voiced – and put them into action imminently.
the hour is coming fast for decision, and it seems like there can be no more avoidance of the inevitable crossroads.
He is looking kind of cowardly in these first days, but perhaps we are withholding judgment and holding our breath, some people hoping their belief in his total badness or inadequacy is proven right, and some are hoping that he is what we hope – better than we are so far justified in claiming… better than our resigned opinions that he is merely slightly preferable to some other alternatives.
We are waiting to see….
So it is quite suspenseful.

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March 25th, 2011, 11:41 pm

 

52. Yasersham said:

I doubt there will ever be a civil war in Syria. You presented the country as a mixed bag of sects and ethnicities but it’s not. when 76% are Muslim Sunni and about 90% are Arab, it’s really hard for me to believe the mixed bag theory. If any war is to happen it will not be like Lebanon or Iraq where there is no dominant sect or ethnicity but it will be like Libya; beneficiaries of the regime against the people oppressed by the regime. It will cross the sectarian and ethnic lines.

Accepting your theory means that Alwites are in a good shape in Syria but we know not all of them is. A lot of the political prisoners are of the Alwaites, whether Salah Jdid followers, Iraqi Baath or Communists.

Syria has a long record of coup d’états and in spite of that there was never a civil war until 1960s and 80s under the brutality of the baath regime.

Now, Bashar is really in a tough position. People would’ve been fine with reasonable set of demands but now that there is blood on his hands (I don’t buy that he didn’t approve it; he is still the president and the on in charge) the situation is really complex. The other mistake in dealing with the situation is that he over killed in a tribal society where revenge and honor concepts are extremely important. I don’t think a nice speech will mind anything with people of Daraa. He messed up with the wrong people and before that he messed up with the people in the northeast who are also tribal. Big mistakes that tell me that he doesn’t know the Syrian social fabric.

What Bothaina Shaaban said couple days ago is the same exact thing he promised in 2001 and here we are 10 yeas later with no even one thing happened. Why should we believe them? their records are full of lies. To change the Constitution to fit his age in 2000, it took the Parliament 30 mins so why do we need a “committee” to “study” the “possibility” to end the Emergency Laws? he can easily with his magic power abandon the Emergency Laws and give a road map for a law to liberate the political life in Syria and eliminate the 8th article of the Syrian Constitution (it says that Baath is the leader political force of the society and state which means political monopoly).
If he does
1- Liberate the political life in Syria
2- Downsize the Syrian intelligence and police forces
3- Eliminate the exceptional courts
4- Release all the prisoners of conscience
5- Fight the corruption, especially the economic one led by the Mafia of his cousin
6- Establish a professional army that doesn’t interfere with the political life
7- Enhance the role of institutions in Syria so the ruling will be based on institutions instead of persons.
8- and the most important is to accept the peaceful change of power every 4 years.

If he has the guts to do that then he will lose the presidency but he will enter the history as the Ataturk of the new Syrian republic, the father of the Syrians in their third or fourth republic whatever number it is.

He will not do any of the above. Even if he wants, the military part of the ruling family won’t allow that to happen because everyone knows that this will be the first step of the journey of the Assad’s ear of the Syrian history.

He, Bashar, is really in a tough position. Doomed if he does and doomed if he doesn’t. I don’t know why, I always remember the kid’s story “if you give a mouse a cookie” when I look at the Syrian issue. His “Majesty” Bashar is afraid that this cookie will end up with him giving up the presidency “thrown” at the end.

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March 25th, 2011, 11:47 pm

 

53. munzer said:

Dear Professor Landis,
It is very good article, thank you
It is very unlikely to have a civil war in Syria because there is a clear majority of Sunnis, it not like Iraq or Lebanon where there is no overwhelming majority. Sunnis comprise almost 74% of the population which makes no fruitful ground for civil war and if it happened it will be for short time.
The fate of Syria now is I think in the hands of the opposition, they have to be strong and united and to show some cohesion and clear demands. More importantly opposition must know seize the opportunity and build strong alliance with the Damascene and Aleppines elites; big merchant and industrial figure, if they done it, the game is over

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March 26th, 2011, 12:42 pm

 

54. Vers la fin du régime baathiste en Syrie? « Mounadil al Djazaïri said:

[...] Alors que la contestation monte, la Syrie peut-elle s’en sortir en douceur? [...]

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March 27th, 2011, 2:51 pm

 
 

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