The Middle East Channel

As quiet returns, Syrians ponder the future

As quiet returns, Syrians ponder the future

Syria experienced its first day of political calm in over two weeks on April 3. The tsunami of protest and youth awakening that swept over Syria as part of the earthquake that hit the Arab world over two months ago has profoundly shaken Syrians. So accustomed to being the "island of stability" in the Middle East, Syrians are now wondering how long the Assad regime can last.

The Baathist regime has presided over Syria for 48 years; Bashar al-Assad has been president for 11 since inheriting power from his father. Although badly bruised and shaken, both remain in firm control. Western accounts of the protest movement in Syria have been exaggerated. At no time was the regime in peril. No officials resigned or left the country as has happened in Libya. Unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian armies, the Syrian army remained loyal to the president, and the protest movement that grew large in the Syrian countryside failed to take root in the cities. The number of demonstrators that turned out in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama, three of Syria’s four largest cities, counted in the hundreds and not the thousands.

Damascus was the only one of these three cities to have demonstrations. There were four in all. The two most significant protests occurred early in the process on March 16 and 17. Dozens of young demonstrators marched through the al-Hamidiyeh and Hariqa souqs on March 16 shouting, "God, Syria, Freedom — is enough," a chant that became the standard slogan of the movement that spread to other parts of Syria in the following two weeks. The day after, scores of human rights activists and the relatives of political prisoners demonstrated in front of the Interior Ministry. After Deraa flared up, the citizens of Damascus fell quiet rather than jumped on the bandwagon.

Aleppo, a hotbed of Muslim Brotherhood support in the 1970s, was completely unaffected by the anti-government movement. Instead, Aleppines turned out in sizable numbers to support the government.

Hama was also unaffected. It was the city that the Muslim Brotherhood was able to take over in 1982 before having its old districts destroyed brutally by the regime. A friend from Hama was asked, "Why isn’t Hama rising against the regime and taking revenge?" He answered: "Syrians demonstrate for their own reasons. Don’t ever think anyone in Daraa will shed a tear for Hama or the other way around." He said there is no great Syrian revolution — "just locals having internal issues."

In Homs, by contrast, a sizable protest took place near the old city on Friday. Demonstrators chanted "Allahu Akbar" and called for "freedom". Violence flared up at the end. Both security forces and demonstrators were wounded. The protest in Homs therefore indicates that the cities are not immune to the movement. But the hallmark of the successful Middle Eastern revolution thus far has been protesters’ ability to overwhelm security forces in the capital city. Damascus dispatched over a million of its inhabitants to a pro-Assad rally, leading many to conclude that the broad public remains on Bashar’s side.

All the same, many suspect that the protest movement, even if contained and sporadic, may become a nagging problem for the regime. Business will be reluctant to invest. The five-year economic plan that was rolled out last year already looks wildly unrealistic. Its centerpiece is based on the gamble that Syria can attract 10 billion dollars of foreign investment per year. This year foreign investment will most likely be less than 2 billion dollars. Economic failure will compound the regime’s problems. Opposition members insist that the barrier of fear in Syria has been punctured for good, even while regime supporters argue that the government will hit hard at the opposition to rebuild the wall of fear and make the protest movement a short lived phenomenon.

Deraa has been the site of the greatest demonstrations and the most violence. Tens of thousands took to the streets, some 100 persons were killed there and in the neighboring towns, many more were wounded. A local reason sparked the protests: 15 high school kids were arrested for scrawling anti-government graffiti on the walls. But the long-term causes were not entirely local. The slogans chosen by the school kids mimicked the calls for freedom used by protesters in Egypt. A six-year drought has also hit the entirety of Eastern Syria hard, devastating agriculture and ruining the wheat crop along with incomes, just at the time that the youth bubble generated by decades of an elevated birthrates brought frustrated and unemployed young onto the streets of Syria’s provincial cities.

What is more, Deraa is a tribal region, and many blamed these loyalties for the severity of the demonstrations. Tribal leaders called for members  of the tribes to come out in force to protest the incarceration of children. Even today, the tribes can provide a vehicle of resistance to the central state. Arab and Kurdish tribes were some of the last social units in Syria to buckle in the face of central authority and national identity.

Latakia, situated on Syria’s coast, also saw several days of demonstrations and violence. This was surprising because it is the capital of the region dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Islam and the group to which the Assad family belongs. 12 were killed, and a number were also killed in Duma, a town outside of Damascus. Demonstrations broke out in many provincial cities, indicating that opposition demands for curtailing corruption, lifting the emergency law, and enacting greater freedoms and speedy reform have resonance across the country.

What has changed?

Even if the government in Damascus remains powerful for the time being and Syrians cling to the stability it promises, there can be little doubt that we are witnessing a profound break from the past. The Arab street has finally come into its own. Rulers will have to think twice before treating their people like sheep. Leaders will be accountable for economic failure. The video phone has become the Arab equivalent of the six-shooter in the American West. It is the new "equalizer." It offers a modicum of power and justice to the ordinary man who can now hold his phone aloft to capture police brutality and post it on Youtube. Technology has been transformative. The recent unrest could not have been sustained without it.

The Syrian community abroad has been irrevocably reunited with Syrians inside the country. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this change. The young of Syria can no longer be isolated from foreign movements and intellectual trends. Those who go abroad used to become dissociated from Syria. Calling home was prohibitively expensive and mandatory military service made returning unpalatable. Technology, specifically Skype, Facebook, and email, has reunited the two communities. In the past, brain drain siphoned off Syria’s best and brightest, and opposition leaders were sent into exile, where they were rarely heard from again. Now they are leading the charge against the regime, pumping sedition into every Syrian household with Youtube and Twitter updates.

A number of Arab states, in particular Tunisia and Egypt, have earned the right to be called nations. Their people have stood up as one to demand sovereignty. Although emergency rule has yet to be lifted in Egypt and a stable government has yet to take shape in Tunisia, there is good reason to believe they will.

For other Arabs, particularly those of the Levant, it is too early to make such bold statements about national integrity. The leading reason Syrians did not take to the streets in larger numbers is fear of communal strife and possible civil war. Also, they do not dislike their government enough to risk going the way of Iraq. Among large segments of Syrian society, Bashar al-Assad remains popular. As a multiethnic and religious society, Syria could come unglued.

But how many years will it be until the next generation of Syrian youth will have only a dim memory of the turmoil in Lebanon or Iraq? Instead of the sentiments of defeat and hopelessness invoked by failed states, young Arabs may well find inspiration in the examples of Egypt and Tunisia. A successful Arab democracy will be a powerful example for others. This begs the question of how long the Assad regime can last.

Syria’s youth are no longer apathetic. They have tasted revolution and their own power. Surely they will want to taste that elixir again. Many commentators have remarked on Bashar al-Assad’s stubbornness. He may be a "modernizer" but not a "reformer," is how Volker Pertes recently explained it. This is a polite way to say that he is not preparing the way for an eventual transfer of power. Many fear that Assad’s refusal to prepare the present regime for a soft landing spells bad news for Syria. Over the last century, Syria’s diverse religious communities have lived together more peaceably than in any other country of the region. In no small part this coexistence is due to the stability that the Assad family has enforced in Syria and to the vision of tolerance and secularism they have promoted. But to preserve that legacy will require preparing Syria for the day when the majority community can assume the lion’s share of power. After the last two weeks of protest, that day seems closer at hand. 

Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of the blog Syria Comment.