With his regime hanging by a thread, Syria’s President Bashar Assad faces two interlocking challenges this week that will determine his political fate: He must somehow calm the centers of protest, and he must convince the public that he means what he promised about reform.
Given Assad’s blunders since the “Arab Spring” began, U.S. officials doubt he can succeed on either and predict that the wave of protests will continue.
Assad’s immediate challenge is to restore order in Homs and Latakia, two regions where protests have been tinged by violence between Sunni Muslims and Alawites, the sect from which Assad and his ruling elite are drawn. U.S. officials have received reports of gangs patrolling the streets in Homs, for example, and they estimate that between ten and 30 people have been killed in sectarian incidents there last weekend. These attacks raise concerns about the kind of Sunni-Alawite bloodbath that Syria-watchers have long feared.
Assad must somehow stabilize these hotbeds of protest without killing large numbers of civilians. His likely strategy will be to saturate the Homs and Latakia governorates with army troops. But the army’s presence will be challenged by protestors, creating an existential crisis for the regime: A massacre would trigger a popular uprising that would split the Syrian army and bring on a bloody combination of revolution and sectarian war.
Amnesty International said Tuesday morning that about 200 Syrians have died since the protests began -- a grim number, but nothing like the total that could emerge if the situation dissolves into all-out suppression and revolt.
If Assad can somehow calm the centers of protest (and that’s a big “if”), he must give some substance to his promises about reform. On Tuesday, Assad lifted Syria’s emergency law -- the basic legal tool of his dictatorship. But how does he take the next step of engaging the opposition in political dialogue?
For a regime that has crushed the opposition for more than 30 years, it will be difficult to find credible people with whom to talk. That’s the price of dictatorship: In suppressing political dissent, you close off potential escape hatches.
Let’s assume for the moment that Assad actually is ready for reform (as some of his advisers say, but the record so far belies). Who should he engage in dialogue? Syria-watchers suggest lists of names, some of them fairly close to the regime, others fiery opponents. The lists include Riad Seif, a dissident Sunni businessman who has been imprisoned by the regime; Abdulsalaam Haykal, a Sunni entrepreneur who maintains contact with the reform-minded wing of the regime; Michael Kilo and Fayez Sara, two opposition journalists who were imprisoned, and Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus bureau chief of London-based al-Hayat newspaper who has contacts with both the regime some dissidents.
In any political outreach, Assad would be wise to include opposition figures from Homs. Two prominent names are Burhan Ghalioun, a professor of sociology at the Sorbonne, and Tayeb Tizini, a professor of philosophy at the University of Damascus.
The Syrian opposition in the streets hasn’t produced its own leaders or a clear agenda yet, and much of the organizing has come from mosques. This influence could be seen in the list of demands presented to Assad by local leaders from Deraa, in southern Syria, where the protests began. The last three items called for reversal of the ban on teachers wearing the full veil known as the niqab, segregation of the sexes in primary schools, and a Muslim satellite television station.
To try to appeal to conservative Muslims, Assad has closed gambling casinos and reversed the ban on the niqab.
Assad’s problem, from the earliest days of the Arab Spring, has been to find a way to get ahead of the protestors. Like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, he began with a harsh, unyielding speech, followed by waves of concessions that have failed to convince the public he really wants reform. U.S. officials believe the protests are likely to continue, with no obvious way for Assad to stop them.
One anti-reform factor has been Syria’s close relationship with Iran, which fears a return of its own “Green Movement.” Though the Iranians have made statements aligning themselves with protests in Egypt and Tunisia, U.S. administration officials say they have recently sent Syria tools for suppressing protest, including tear gas, anti-riot gear such as batons, and surveillance technology.
Either way, repression or reform, Assad faces a dangerous future.