Rifts in Assad’s promises

On April 21, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared an end to 48 years of emergency law. Protests escalated despite this effort to quell them. And today, Damascus is in a higher state of emergency than ever before. The course of Syria’s protests has taken many observers by surprise. I argued on ForeignAffairs.com in March 2011 that the regime’s “credible threat to use force” and the alliance that the country’s anti-American, minority ruling cadre had built with the military and elite to sustain its rule would “prevent oppositional forces from gaining a critical mass in the near future.” The fear of brutal repression and sectarian tensions, I wrote, would encourage Syrians to “pin their hopes on a slow but stable process of reform.”

These factors have indeed delayed pro-democracy activism. Whereas social networks mobilized hundreds of thousands of demonstrators quickly in Egypt and Tunisia, in Syria the momentum has been building slowly. Protests have erupted nationwide, but some would-be activists remain deterred by the military’s threat of force. Calls for a nation-wide general strike remained largely unanswered this week. At the same time, the positive examples of change in Egypt and Tunisia further infuriated the thousands who did decide to take to the streets. And the regime’s violent reaction to the demonstrators’ initially modest demands has hardened their resolve. As time has gone on, they have moved from calling for the end of Syria’s emergency law and condemning the regime’s corruption to calling for the outright dismantling of the country’s system of government. Momentum has shifted against the Syrian regime, and Assad has proved unable to escape the demand for political change sweeping the region.

Repeating the failed approach of his ousted counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, Assad has responded to the protests both by attempting to delegitimize them as a “foreign conspiracy” and by offering limited concessions in the hopes of subduing the masses. His promises to lift the ban on teachers in public schools wearing Islamic headscarves, to grant citizenship to stateless Kurds, to dismiss the government, and to end the unpopular emergency law might well have appeased calls for change had they been offered at the outset. But given the regime’s delayed response these steps were seen as disingenuous.

Moreover, Assad’s concessions lack sincerity. After he dismissed the government on March 29, he formed a new one, in which 9 of 25 ministers had previously served on his cabinet. And when the emergency law was lifted, the government announced its intention to introduce an “anti-terrorism” law with similar, if not identical, stipulations. These haphazard measures have only fanned the flames they were meant to smother. The Assad regime spent considerable political capital on empty declarations, missing opportunities to defuse the conflict with genuine reform.

As I predicted, Assad’s response to growing calls for regime change has been ruthless. In late April, he dispatched waves of heavily armored troops to centers of opposition — Deraa, Douma, and Banias — resulting in scores of civilian casualties. Last Friday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cited reports according to which up to 800 people have been killed since mid-March. Thousands have been arrested and are currently being held in makeshift prisons. In this respect, Assad’s approach mirrors that of Muammar al-Qaddafi, whose violent response to protests in Libya did not quell the opposition but bolstered it, not least by compelling the international community to act. Although pressure mounts for the international community to intervene in Syria, Syrians remain highly opposed to outside help — a remarkable and fundamental difference from the Libyans.

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