Friday, May 06, 2011

Syria: Assad's Fate Hangs in Balance

By Bernard Schell
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

CAIRO (IDN) - Time has taken its toll on President Bashar al-Assad who was convinced that Syria was immune to the fallout of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. But, analysts say, the resilience and survival mindset of the Alawites to whom the al-Assad family belongs, should not be underestimated. Even though they constitute only 12 percent of the population, Syria's Alawites -- who constitute a branch of Shia Islam -- have monopolised power for decades.

On the other hand, analysts argue, "it is not altogether inconceivable that less senior members of the armed forces and / or those who are less beholden to the regime may turn against the line of command."

Before the ardent desire for change electrifying people across the Arab world engulfed Syria in mid-March, President al-Assad said that in spite of a "new era" in the Middle East signalled by the toppling of Tunisia's long-time ruler and the protests that had left Hosni Mubarak's government teetering in Egypt, his country was stable.

In a rare interview with the U.S. based Link TV on January 31, he said: "We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries, but in spite of that Syria is stable … When there is divergence ... you will have vacuum that creates disturbances."

He said Arab societies had become more closed-minded since the 1980s, leading to extremism and less development and openness. The challenge for leaders was how to open societies and build up institutions.

"If you didn't see the need of reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it's too late to do any reform," he said, cautioning however against rushing through reforms in response to events in those two countries. "You have to upgrade yourself with the upgrading of the society. This is the most important headline."

The real headline, as countrywide demonstrations demanding participation in governance structures over the previous six weeks indicate, is that the Syrian regime failed to "upgrade" itself, which prepared a fertile ground for stark protests that are posing the greatest challenge to Bashar al-Assad since he stepped into his father's shoes in 2000.

"Demonstrations have not as yet developed the tsunami thrust of Tunisia or Egypt, but the momentum has increased throughout April 2011," says a new analysis published by the British Maplecroft that monitors and analyses risks in and beyond the Middle East and North Africa. "President al-Assad has reason to fear that the momentum could increase further. The regime's determination to crack down on protests and their growing intensity suggest that the already high level of violence is likely to increase in the short term."

The report lists some of the key 'risk factors' and 'buffers' to unrest in Syria, which borders Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.


Syria shares a number of commonalities with countries that have witnessed widespread unrest and the subsequent removal of incumbent presidents, says the report. "While Syrian protestors are frustrated by the lack of freedom, oppression and the impunity of the security forces, their lack of economic means has also figured prominently. Poverty and unemployment remains rife."

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for instance informs that 30 percent of the Syrian population lives below the poverty line. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates unemployment at 11 percent, though the actual figure is considered to be much higher.

The report points out that the Syrian regime is concerned because even the strategically important parts of Syria have not been immune to protest. Daraa, a Sunni-dominated tribal region, conventionally regarded as a stronghold of the government and military leadership, remains the hotbed of protests demanding an overhaul of the political system.

The coastal city of Latakia, which has witnessed protests and security forces' brutal response, is also considered strategically significant because it has an Alawite majority. The Alawites continue to hold the reins of power for decades in Syria. The most prominent member of the Shi'ite offshoot since his father's death is Bashar al-Assad.

"The Ba'athist regime is rightly concerned about the risk that protests will increase further in intensity," says the report. Over the six weeks since mid-March, the numbers of protestors has swollen from a few hundred to thousands in urban centres across the country.

The analysts' report points out that President al-Assad has reason to be increasingly concerned that unrest in restive Kurdish regions might intensify protests, particularly as members of Syria's long-suffering Kurdish minority have also joined the fray. They are said to have intentionally avoided demanding greater cultural rights, most notably in the form of Syrian citizenship, but like other demonstrators are demanding freedom and political transformation.

On April 1, several hundred Kurds reportedly marched in the north-eastern streets of Qamishli and Amuda to protest against the Ba'athist regime. In response, Bashar al-Assad announced on April 7 that people living in the country's eastern Hasaka governorate would be granted Syrian citizenship.

Between 150,000 and 300,000 Kurds are expected to benefit from the initiative. The decision has widely been interpreted as an attempt to ensure that a Kurdish mass uprising in north-eastern Syria does not take place.

"The majority of measures by al-Assad to diffuse public anger are widely seen as cosmetic or fake and similar to the unsuccessful concessions made by former President Ben Ali in Tunisia and former President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt before they were forced from power," the report says.

It points out that in a bid to placate protesters the Syrian president has freed hundreds of prisoners (mainly Islamists), accepted the resignation of the cabinet and promised to end the notorious state of emergency which has been in force since 1963. The state of emergency was lifted on April 19, 2011, although a conflicting message was released the same day by the Interior Ministry which forbade protests.

"The security forces have continued to kill, torture and arrest protesters while the drafting of new anti-terrorism legislation is likely to act as another carte blanch to justify government oppression and impunity amongst the security forces. It is known that the cabinet answers to the president and has little executive power," says the report.

Analysts are of the view that so long as the perception persists that the government is not serious about reform, an end to widespread protests and social upheaval seems unlikely.

In addition to above-mentioned steps towards change, presidential spokesperson Bouthaina Shaaban promised in late March a rise in workers' wages, introduction of health reforms, and establishment of a mechanism to fight corruption as well as ways to allow more political parties to compete in elections. However, the government had announced a similar package of reforms in 2005 with little to show as a result.

Against this backdrop, Syria continues to rank as an extreme risk country in Maplecroft's Business Integrity and Corruption Index.


But analysts do not rule out that the Ba'athist regime's heavy-handed security response may nonetheless contain the force of protests, at least in the short term. The increasing use of heavy weaponry such as tanks, artillery, and mortars to crush dissent indicates that the regime has hardened its approach. Reports of arrests, beatings and torture in custody meanwhile persist. Around 450 people are believed to have been killed in the government crackdown since April 28, 2008.

The report says: "A successful muscular security approach may tip the balance in favour of Bashar al-Assad's hawkish advisers and cause advisors with more liberal and reformist inclinations to be sidelined. This, however, does not preclude the possibility of al-Assad extending greater concessions in the weeks and months to come. Nor does it preclude the possibility that the security forces' violent response will add further momentum to the protest movement and increase the level of opposition to the regime."

And this because the military is structured to preserve the interests of the ruling Alawite minority and few Syrians view the army as a benign entity that can be trusted. Alawite officers continue to dominate the top brass, and Sunni generals do not enjoy real executive power within the armed forces.

"Nonetheless, as the civil uprising gathers momentum and spreads across the country, it is not altogether inconceivable that less senior members of the armed forces and / or those who are less beholden to the regime may turn against the line of command," analysts predict.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that a significant portion of the 5th army division, including high ranking officers, have defected. Eye witnesses report that soldiers from the 5th division intervened on April 26, 2011 to protect unarmed residents of Daraa from the 4th division. The Alawite-dominated 4th division is led by Maher Assad, Bashar's brother. The central role of the 4th division in the crackdown against anti-government protests underlines that the regime is concerned about the loyalty of the army's rank-and-file.

"Bashar al-Assad also draws comfort from the fact that he enjoys a base of support which extends beyond the Alawite minority. This has for instance been reflected in pro-government demonstrations in Damascus. The oppressive nature of the regime makes it nigh impossible to reflect on the true level of support enjoyed by Bashar al-Assad. Yet, the Ba'athist (renaissance) party will continue to use pro-government protesters and violence to counter and discourage protests staged by those who demand change," says the report.

The resilience and survival mindset of the Alawites and the al-Assad family in particular counts in their favour, it adds. Although constituting merely 12 percent of the population, Syria's Alawites have monopolised power for decades. The level of oppression that the al-Assad regime has resorted to in order to discourage dissent is believed to have fuelled resentment amongst Syria's Sunni majority, which constitutes about three-quarters of the total population of 22 million.

"The stakes are therefore particularly high for Bashar al-Assad and members of the Alawite elite and they are unlikely to relinquish power without putting up a fight," maintains the report. The 1982 crackdown to neutralise a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama (where more than 20,000 were killed) and the quashing of a Kurdish rebellion in 2004, underline the regime's willingness to resort to extreme force irrespective of casualty numbers if necessary.