Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Syria's Assad Regime Gets Little Sympathy from Neighbors

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Syria's Assad Regime Gets Little Sympathy from Neighbors

Article excerpt

Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, kept Syria stable for 40 years through Machiavellian guile and ruthlessness, while sowing havoc elsewhere in the region.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must wince whenever he recalls saying in a January interview that unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Syria was stable because the leadership is "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.

"This is the core issue," he told The Wall Street Journal. "When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance."

Now Syria is in the throes of escalating protests and an intensifying government crackdown that has left more than 400 people dead, including 15 today in the southern flashpoint town of Deraa. The protest movement has issued a stark ultimatum to the president: Transition to democracy, or be toppled.

"What has happened to him is really a tremendous shock," says Patrick Seale, a veteran journalist and biographer of Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad.

Why Syria's uprising is even more surprising than Egypt's

It's not just Syria, of course. The stunning events in the Arab world over the past four months represent the greatest regional upheaval since the modern Arab states were established by European colonial powers more than 70 years ago.

But the outbreak of Syrian protests in mid-March was even more surprising than the events in Egypt in some ways. While former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was widely seen as on his way out, President Assad was young, married to a modern wife recently profiled in Vogue, and was regarded by many inside and outside Syria as a potential reformer.

Yes, Syria shared some of the same ailments as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, such as an ossified state structure, poor economy, endemic corruption, lack of freedoms, and swelling population. But most analysts and diplomats shared Assad's confidence that Syria was somehow immune to the protest movements sweeping the Arab world.

Concern, but little sympathy for Syrian regime

The Assad dynasty, after all, had managed to survive 40 years in the turbulent Middle East using a combination of repression, guile, strategic foresight, and luck. Its neighbors - Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, all have been at odds with Syria at some point in the past four decades, complaining that Syria was meddling in their affairs, dispatching insurgents and militants into their territories, and providing support for their enemies.

Now some of Syria's neighbors are quietly gloating at the Assad regime's discomfort, while others are worried that the instability will spill across their shared borders. But both Syria's foes and friends recognize the country's central role in the chaotic dynamics of the region - and its Machiavellian ability to act as a spoiler when marginalized or threatened.

Domestically, the Syrian population either was cowed by the state's omnipresent and ruthless security apparatus or quietly accepted that the lack of freedoms was a price worth paying to ensure internal stability. The ruling Baath Party's Arab nationalist ideology papered over the sectarian and ethnic cracks that define Syria, which is ruled by the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"Syria is the cockpit of the Middle East and optimizes the deep complexity of the region's schizophrenic social geography," says Joshua Landis, who heads the Middle East Center at the University of Oklahoma. "On the one hand, it has always made a claim to be the beating heart of Arabism, calling for unity and secularism, and on the other, it is a deeply fragmented nation with a regime dominated by a religious minority."

Assad senior: ruthless, but pragmatic

After Syria gained independence from France in 1946, Syria was plagued by successive coups - there were three in 1949 alone. …

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