The American Kafir

2011/03/30

The Syrian President’s Apparent Confidence

Filed under: Libya, Muslim Brotherhood, National Security, Obama, Syria — - @ 3:10 pm

Source Stratfor

ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images Pro-government demonstrators rally in Damascus on March 29

Summary

The spread of protests in Syria led to speculation that Syrian President Bashar al Assad, in a speech delivered to parliament March 30, would announce reforms or repeal the country’s emergency law. However, al Assad avoided making even token political reforms that could have been construed as a sign of the regime’s weakness. The Syrian regime, still in a relatively stronger position compared to many of its Arab counterparts, is likely to resort to more forceful crackdowns in an effort to discourage the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood from throwing their full weight behind the demonstrations.

Analysis

Syrian President Bashar al Assad delivered a speech to parliament March 30 that focused on asserting his authority amid intensifying protests. Ahead of the speech, speculation was swirling that al Assad would announce an end to the country’s emergency law, which has been in place since 1963, and a handful of reforms in an attempt to quell demonstrations, which have spread from the southwest Sunni stronghold of Daraa to Damascus, Latakia, Homs, Hama and Qamishli in recent days. Instead, al Assad only vaguely mentioned the need for future reforms (he did not mention the emergency law at all) but, like the Bahraini government, maintained that security and stability would need to come first. He also spent time on a narrative of foreign conspirators exploiting the grievances of the Syrian people to break Syria apart.

When the wave of regional uprisings was still in its nascent stages, al Assad, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, acknowledged the growing need for reforms in Syria while confidently asserting that his country was immune to a popular uprising. In spite of that obviously premature assertion, the Syrian president has observed the tactics employed by neighboring embattled Arab leaders and has deduced that the promise of reform, if announced when a regime is acting defensively in the current regional environment, is more likely to embolden than quell the opposition.

Al Assad instead appears to be steadfast in his intent to intensify a crackdown on protesters. While the protesters in and around Daraa have remained defiant and continue to take to the streets in large numbers, protests elsewhere in the country remain relatively limited so far. The regime’s priority is to halt the demonstrations’ momentum while it still can, in order to avoid giving the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) the confidence to throw its full weight behind the demonstrations. (The Syrian MB still remembers the 1982 Hama massacre, when the government violently put down the Syrian MB’s uprising.) There are some early indications of MB involvement in the demonstrations in Daraa, where the religious movement and tribal landscape is linked to the Jordanian MB. However, it appears that the Syrian MB is waiting for stronger assurances from the West that it will be defended in the event of a severe crackdown.

So far, there is no sign of such assurances. The U.S. administration has been attempting to carefully differentiate the humanitarian military intervention in Libya from the escalating situation in Syria, claiming the level of oppression in the latter does not warrant a discussion of military intervention to protect Syrian citizens. Though this distinction is very blurry — and now much more complicated, given that al Assad is refraining from announcing even token reforms — the United States and its Western allies (including Israel) do not appear to have any strong motivation to entangle themselves in the Levant region and risk the instability that could result from the downfall of al Assad’s regime. Turkey, which has stepped up its mediation efforts with Syria, does not want to see further instability on its borders. Al Assad is likely looking to Ankara for assurances that NATO will not intervene in Syria as it did in Libya, should the government resort to more forceful crackdowns. In return for such assurances, Syria could be helping to clamp down on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad activity.

The 45-year-old al Assad does not face the same succession issues with which many other old and ailing embattled Arab leaders are struggling. Like many regimes in the region, the al Assad regime has its fissures, though those appear to be largely contained for now. A key family feud to monitor is a long-standing rivalry between the president’s brother and head of the elite Presidential Guard, Maher al Assad, and his brother-in-law, Gen. Asef Shawkat, deputy chief of staff of the Syrian army. According to a STRATFOR source, Maher al Assad was staunchly against al Assad’s announcing a package of political reforms and ending the emergency law. He, along with many within al Assad’s inner circle, believes that even token political reforms are a sign of weakness. So far, that view appears to be prevailing.

The Syrian security and intelligence apparatus has been struggling to put down the protests but remains a pervasive, fairly unified and competent force for internal security. Opposition organizers and protesters are being rounded up daily and the regime, well-versed in intimidation tactics, is making clear to the protesters and their families the consequences of dissent. Whether this will be enough to stamp out the current uprising remains to be seen, but the Syrian regime is capable of bringing much more force to bear on the demonstrators should the protests escalate.

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