While President Bashar al-Assad has declared that his nation is immune from the kinds of mass protests taking place in Egypt, Syria is looking more and more like a prime candidate to be the next Arab government to confront its own restless population.

The reality is no Arab country is exempt, and it seems the young Syrian dictator is aware of that fact – and is nervous. Suddenly, Assad is offering, after more than a decade in power, to take steps towards political reform. But free elections, human rights protections, and other democratic values are not found in the Assad family governance guidebook.

Inspired by the overthrow of Tunisia’s ruler of 23 years, and the escalating protests in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign, Syrians are gearing up for mass protests this weekend against the Assad dynasty that has ruled the country with an iron fist for more than 40 years.
How the opposition in Syria mobilizes and what kinds of public protests they can organize will test Bashar in ways he has not yet had to face.

Assad assumed power in 2000 at the age of 34, following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had seized the presidency in a bloodless coup in 1970. The younger Assad, a British-trained opthamologist, did not originally aspire to follow his father, but accepted the role after the death of his brother, Bassel, in a car crash.

While some had hoped the younger Assad would usher in a new era in Syria, he quickly assumed the pattern of his father’s strict authoritarian rule, meddling in neighboring Lebanon and promoting hostility to Israel, while ensuring that the ruling Ba’ath Party remained unchallenged.

It was under Basher al-Assad’s watch that Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005. The highly anticipated U.N. Special Tribunal indictments may reveal any Syrian role in the murder.

He also has allowed, as his father did, Palestinian terrorist groups, such as Hamas, to operate in Damascus, while Syria also serves as a conduit for Iranian arms supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The younger Assad has not yet gone as far as his father did in responding to internal opposition in Syria. The 1982 massacre in Hama, killing more than 20,000 and leveling much of the Syrian city, was Hafez Assad’s preferred method for dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood.

How the Basher al-Assad regime responds to protestors will be closely watched, especially by the United States, which recently returned its ambassador to Damascus after a six-year hiatus.

Will Assad clampdown on the protests, as his ally in Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, did so aggressively after he stole the 2009 presidential elections? Or, will Assad truly recognize that a new wind is blowing across the Arab world, and open Syria to a new political configuration, even at the risk of ending the long Alawite minority rule?

At present, Basher is defiantly defensive, already seeking to divert attention from any internal critique of his rule. While asserting that Syria is “stable” in a Wall Street Journal interview this week, Assad also said that his country is safe because, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Syria had not established relations with Israel.

That’s a bogus assertion. Israel has nothing to do with the economic and political situation in Syria. In fact, an Israeli-Syrian peace accord, achievable if Assad would negotiate in good faith, likely would contribute to economic growth in Syria.

Maybe Assad has clarified that his real loyalties lie not with the Syrian people but with his neighbors and the terror groups he hosts who reject Israel’s very existence.

This tired approach, however, is unlikely to placate the growing voices of dissent in Syria who, like their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, and a growing number of other Arab countries, are seeking momentous political changes in the countries where they live so they can better their own lives.

Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of communications.