The Syrian government continued a crackdown on protesters March 19 a day after rare post-Friday prayer demonstrations. Syria exhibits many of the symptoms other embattled regimes have experienced in the region, but the protests have not yet reached critical mass such that the regime would be in serious jeopardy. Damascus will rely on the country’s endemic regionalism and the regime’s pervasive security and intelligence apparatus in an effort to keep a lid on unrest. The Syrian regime also benefits from having a number of external allies and even adversaries who prefer the status quo in Damascus to regime change.
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Syrian security forces continued a crackdown March 19 in the southern city of Daraa, a day after some thousands of protesters engaged in a rare demonstration calling for freedom and an end to the Syrian regime’s corruption and repression. Tear gas was fired on a funeral procession in Daraa, and fresh calls for protests in the city of Homs emerged on Facebook. Following Friday prayers March 18, demonstrations were held in Damascus, as well as Daraain the south, Banyas on the Mediterranean, and Homs north of Damascus and about 40 kilometers from Hama, the main bastion of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The mosques served as the main rallying point for the demonstrations, with the largest turnout of roughly 5,000 reported in Daraa. Demonstrations in Banyas, Damascus and Homs numbered in the several hundreds.
Though the protests have not come close to posing an existential threat to the regime, should significant disturbances take place in Hama, Aleppo and Homs, the Syrian regime will have a much bigger problem.
Opposition groups inside and outside Syria have attempted to capitalize on the North African unrest and mobilize protesters in Syria via Facebook over the past several weeks, having little success until March 18. The first Syrian “Day of Rage” protests Feb. 4-5 in the cities of Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Qamishli rapidly fell flat under pressure from security forces. Follow-on attempts at demonstrations, this time less politically charged, were made Feb. 17 when some 500 protesters gathered in Damascus following a minor clash between a policeman and a civilian.
On Feb. 23, some 200 protesters gathered outside the Libyan Embassy in Damascus to express their solidarity with the Libyan people, prompting another crackdown by security forces. By the week of March 13, the protests began picking up momentum, with small demonstrations starting up in the Kurdish towns of al Qamishli and al Hasakah spreading toDamascus on March 15 and 16 with a few hundred protesters outside the Interior Ministry. On March 18, dubbed the “Day of Dignity,” the post-Friday prayer protests spread across the country and were met with a violent crackdown that reportedly left five demonstrators dead and hundreds injured.
According to a STRATFOR source, the Syrian authorities were anticipating demonstrations to initiate at al Umari mosque in Damascus and were prepared to confront the demonstrations. However, the Syrian authorities did not anticipate significant demonstrations breaking out elsewhere, particularly in the city of Daraa. The Syrian army reportedly has been put on alert following the March 18 protests and the use of plainclothes army troops to quell further disturbances is likely.
Syria exhibits many of the symptoms other embattled regimes have experienced in the region, including high unemployment, near-stagnant economic growth and a lack of civil society. Its hereditary regime’s members belong to a different branch of Islam than the majority of the population. (An Alawite sect considered heretical by many within the country’s Sunni majority rules Syria.) The Syrian regime relied on the country’s endemic regionalism and iron-fist tactics to avoid falling victim to the regional unrest. Unlike North Africa’s relative homogeneity, Syria’s population is split religiously, ethnically and culturally among Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Kurds, Druze and Christians.
The biggest opposition threat to the Alawite-Baathist regime comes from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whose estimated 600,000 members mainly reside in the cities ofDamascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama. Since unrest in Syria began simmering in late January, the Syrian MB has taken a cautious approach toward calls for demonstrations by the mostly youth activists attempting to mobilize on Facebook. The 1982 massacre on the Syrian MB in their stronghold in Hama, following a Sunni uprising against the Alawite regime, remains fresh in the minds of many Syrian MB members, who are well aware that Syrian authorities can bring massive force to bear in putting down these protests. So far, the protests in Syriahave not come close to reaching any sort of critical mass capable of seriously threatening the regime. However, should significant disturbances take place in Hama, Aleppo and Homs, indicating greater MB participation in the current unrest, the Syrian regime will have a much more serious crisis on its hands.
While attempting to manage disturbances internally, the Syrian government benefits from having a number of external allies and even adversaries who prefer the status quo inDamascus to regime change. Iran, for example, has a strategic interest in maintaining close ties to the Alawite leadership in Syria to preserve its foothold in the Levant region. The more vulnerable Syria is internally, the more leverage Iran has in managing its relationship withDamascus by offering assistance where needed to clamp down on protests. To Syria’s west, Egypt — as a pivotal player in the Arab world now reasserting itself in the region after sorting out a succession crisis — has an interest in shoring up its relationship with Damascus to pull Syria into the Arab orbit and away from Iran. Egypt is also looking to Syriato facilitate talks between Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian territories and has been reaching out to the Syrian regime recently toward this end. Meanwhile, Israel, while in an adversarial relationship with Syria, prefers the predictability of the al Assad regime to a Muslim Brotherhood resurgence in Syria.
Though the interests of these external players alone are not enough to prevent an internal crisis in Syria, the Syrian regime intends to rely on heavy-handed crackdowns by its pervasive security and intelligence apparatus to keep a lid on the current unrest. The Syrian regime has reason to be concerned, especially should its psychological wall of fear continue to erode and fail to deter protesters from swelling in the streets, but such a crisis is not yet assured.