Some three weeks after open dissent first broke out on the streets of Syria, the outpouring of opposition to the four decade long rule of the Assad family and the Ba’ath party is continuing to gather pace. Demonstrations that begun in the South have now spread throughout the country, reaching suburbs of Damascus and long-oppressed Kurdish regions. As vast areas grind to a halt amid the unrest and the state apparatus channels its entire energy towards maintaining control – some commentators are beginning to question just how secure President Bashar al-Assad really is.
Certainly he is not about to go the way of Ben-Ali or Mubarak; not just yet at least. It should not be forgotton that the Assad family has faced-down equally if not more serious challenges to its rule before – such as an armed insurgency by Islamist rebels in the city of Hama during 1982, to which Bashar’s father Hafiz responded by massacring anywhere between ten thousand and eighty thousand people – mainly civilians. Shortly after taking power in 2000, Bashar himself crushed the Damascus Spring, a widespread peaceful push for democracy led by academics and dissident members of the Majlis al-Sha'ab (parliament), by locking up scores of the main protagonists. Mistreatment of these political prisoners including solitary confinement, torture, beatings and hard labour was widely reported- sending a clear signal to those who sought to undermine the regime and effectively snuffing out the vibrant web of debate and dissent that had begun to form.
Beyond this track-record, the high-stakes of Syrian ethnic and religious politics further underscore just how hard the challenge facing the opposition is. The Assad family are Alawite: a minority religious sect technically regarded as apostasy in Sunni Islam, the form to which the majority of Syrians subscribe. This has created something of a ‘siege mentality’ amongst the regime, involving substantive patronage for fellow Alawites and a willingness to take drastic measures in the retention of power. Senior troops and government officials will therefore be far less likely to defect and far more likely to continue the history of repression, than their Tunisian or Egyptian counterparts.
In spite of these factors though, the potential of this current wave of opposition should not be underestimated; not least because of its significant differences to previous incidents. Unlike the Hama Uprising these protests involve a broad mix of Syrian groups including democrats, young people and ethnic minorities as well as more Islamist-leaning citizens and are taking place on a national rather than a local level, giving them far more opportunity for growth and making them much harder to control. They are also more physical than the Damascus Spring- which mainly centred around discussions, open letters and ‘salons’ where political issues were debated, rather than street protests and riots. Furthermore the success of democratic revolutionaries elsewhere in the Arab world will provide the kind of hope that those seeking reform have not experienced before – a psychological encouragement that must not be written off.
This has clearly been recognised by Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen, who in addition to dishing out their usual brand of thuggery – shooting demonstrators, denying medical aid and cutting off lines of communication; have unusually made widely publicised concessions to various groups involved in the protests. Overtures to Islamists have included closing down a controversial casino, reversing a ban on teachers wearing the Niqab and reinstating those fired for this; whilst in an unprecedented move members of the long-abused Kurdish population in the region of Hasaka have been granted citizenship, a basic right they were previously denied. On one level these are largely irrelevant – dismissed by many commentators as posturing of little real significance and rejected by many demonstrators for not going far enough. However, they are illustrative of a fear within the Assad-camp and potentially a realisation that physical force on its own will not be enough to quell the growing dissent.