An attempt to launch a day of rage in Syria in early February fizzled, dashing hopes at the time that the country was poised to follow the dramatic popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. It would take longer for the wave of protests for freedom to reach the country. Initially, pervasive fear of the Bashar al-Assad regime and its notorious security apparatus apparently persuaded anyone contemplating public protests to reconsider.
Or perhaps the missing ingredient was the spark to ignite decades of pent-up anger. In Tunisia, a young fruit vendor’s self-immolation led to nationwide protests and within weeks the government’s fall.
The Syrian spark came in mid-March, when fourteen schoolchildren in the southern city of Daraa were arrested for scrawling graffiti against the regime. Reports of how the youngsters were mistreated set off protests, which grew as soldiers shot and killed people, which led, in turn, to more demonstrations in Daraa that spread to Damascus, the port city of Latakia, and other venues.
Contrary to this authoritarian regime’s expectation that the use of brute force would effectively shutdown protests, the opposite has occurred. Syrians, like their counterparts in other Arab countries, are displaying a new, untapped well of courage. They are willing to step out, shout and protest, even if doing so puts their own lives at risk. Dozens have been killed so far in Syria.
Attacks on the ruling Baath Party buildings and the ripping down of huge posters of the president reflect the anger of segments of Syrian society who have had enough of the economic and political stagnation that bedevil their country.
The scenes may seem similar to what’s been taking place in Cairo, Tunis, Sanaa, and Manama, but each country’s circumstances are unique. The situation in Syria is still fluid, and media access severely restricted.
What direction the emerging uprising in Syria will take is unclear, but that hasn’t stopped speculation about what may transpire should the Assad regime fall, and how that will impact on Lebanon or on Iran’s influence in the Fertile Crescent.
Given the situations in Libya and Yemen, it’s clear that the more rigid dictatorships are more resilient, especially when the security infrastructure that supports them remains loyal. At this juncture it is premature to anticipate an end to Syria’s interference in Lebanon, active support for Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, and alliance with Iran, though all of these outcomes would be favorable for regional security and Syria’s future.
President Assad has, for the most part, stayed out of public view. Sporadic announcements indicating that Assad might lift the emergency laws that empower his fierce rule and implement other reforms may not be enough to stop the momentum gained by the regime’s opponents. Nor will the resignation of the cabinet, filled with Assad appointees, head off the protestors as long as Syria remains a one-party dictatorship. Assad has lost touch with his own citizens.
Or maybe he is just in denial. In his nationally televised address to the Syrian Parliament on Wednesday, Assad dismissed the protests as the product of foreign agitators seeking “to fragment Syria, to bring down Syria as a nation, to enforce an Israeli agenda.” This is a reprise of his Wall Street Journal interview in January, when Assad declared that Syria was immune to the kinds of upheavals roiling Tunisia and Egypt because his country had not established relations with Israel. Of course if there is any Israeli agenda, it is to achieve a permanent peace agreement with Syria, but both Bashar and his late father, Hafez, have refused to embrace that path.
Protestors in Syria are tired of the regime’s continual efforts to deflect attention away from internal woes to external challenges. Their hopes for real change, however, were once again dashed when Assad, in his speech, made clear that the 1963 emergency laws will remain intact.
Unlike Egypt, there is no obvious organized opposition to the Assad regime, and some key leaders remain in jail. It may take longer than in other Arab countries to realize real change in Syria, but the protestors are no longer cowering.
Indeed, just two days after Assad’s disappointing speech, thousands took to the streets Friday in Daraa and Damascus after prayers in a mass protest called the “Day of Martyrs,” to honor the more than 70 killed by soldiers and police during the past two weeks.
Although Syria does not offer precious resources, its strategic location, bordering Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, means that what happens will have repercussions beyond Syria’s borders. While other crises of turmoil in the region have understandably captivated the attention of the Arab League, the United States, Europe and the U.N., at some point in the not too distant future they will need to address creatively and constructively the deteriorating situation in Syria.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of communications.