Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is attempting a new survival tactic in this Arab Spring — organizing what looks like a coup against his own government. Over the next 48 hours, it should become clear whether he has the political muscle and dexterity to pull off this unusual maneuver.
Assad dismissed his cabinet ministers Tuesday, and his backers encouraged massive public demonstrations of support in Damascus, Aleppo and other Syrian cities. Photographs showed huge crowds; a Syrian source claimed that 2 million Assad supporters had assembled in Damascus and 1 million in Aleppo, but it’s impossible to confirm these numbers.
In their effort to turn the tables on protesters, the regime used Facebook as one of its tools to summon demonstrators. The social networking site was officially approved in Syria less than two month ago.
Assad has deliberately avoided making any public pronouncements so far, leaving those mostly to his pro-reform adviser Bouthaina Shaaban. She said last week that Assad would repeal Syria’s emergency law, end the Baath Party’s monopoly on power, reform the judiciary and combat the corruption that is endemic in Syria.
The decisive moment could come as early as Wednesday, when Assad may give the major speech the public has been expecting. He is said to have waited because he didn’t want to be caught in the same cycle as Egypt’s desposed president, Hosni Mubarak, who made a series of speeches announcing modest concessions, each of which only fueled the demand for more.
Assad appears to be holding his cards for one big play, a move that his wily father, President Hafez al-Assad, would have endorsed.
Information I gathered from sources on Tuesday about the political jockeying inside Syria fits with what I heard from inside the Assad camp when I was in Damascus a month ago.
A measure of Assad’s seriousness is whether he moves to curtail the political and economic power of his own family. The lightning rod for public protest against corruption, for example, is Assad’s cousin Rami Makhluf, who has been a major shareholder in the cellphone franchise known as Syriatel. I wrote last month after visiting Damascus that Assad planned to press Makhluf to reduce his Syriatel holdings, as a symbol of his broader reform effort. That’s still said to be on Assad’s agenda.
The Assad clan also has military power that could obstruct Bashar’s reformist moves. His brother Maher, for example, commands a tough unit of Syrian special forces, and his brother-in-law Assaf Shaukat has been a senior intelligence official. It’s anyone’s guess, at this point, whether the Assads will remain united behind Bashar or fall into a bloody internal fued, but so far Bashar has proved the master of the situation.
Syria had been relatively stable compared with its Arab neighbors until about 10 days ago, when thousands of protesters in the southern city of Deraa took to the streets to protest the killings of several youths there. Deraa is a tribal city, and the clans united in their anger against the provincial governor, Faisal Kalthoum, and his chief of security. Security forces opened fire on the demonstrators and some were killed.
The protests then began to spread, most dangerously to Latakia, a city in the north with a mixed population of Sunni Muslims and Alawite Muslims, the latter a minority sect from which Assad and other members of the elite are drawn. The violence has led to more than 50 dead nationwide so far. Some pro-reform members of the Assad government have referred to the dead protesters as “martyrs,” a sign of their eagerness to connect Assad with the wave of change that is sweeping the Arab world.