Tens of thousands of people demonstrated across Syria on April 22, calling for an end to the regime of President Bashar al Assad. Protests have been growing in numbers since March 15, and more and more of those taking to the streets have begun to call for regime change, as opposed to mere political reforms. Syria’s Alawite regime is faced with a serious dilemma inchoosing how to deal with the rising, and while al Assad still does not appear to be in imminent jeopardy of losing power, the sectarian fault lines in the country have the potential to rupture, should the demonstrations continue to increase in intensity and scope.
At least 38 people have reportedly been killed as tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated across Syria on April 22. The demonstrations, held days after President Basharal Assad lifted the country’s decades-old state of emergency, mark the sixth straight week of unrest in the country. Original attempts at “Day of Rage” protests in February largely failed, but demonstrations began again in earnest March 15 with a few hundred protesters in Damascus. From there, they eventually spread to nearly every other population center in the country. The protest movement has posed the most serious challenge to the al Assad regime since he took over for his father in 2000.
The Syrian rising is not being conducted by a single group, nor is it guided by a unified ideology. There are pro-democracy elements, but also ethnic and sectarian elements to the demonstrations. The majority Sunni population has led the challenge against the minorityAlawite regime (Alawites are considered an offshoot of Shia Islam) and has been joined by Kurdish protesters in the northeast as well as by small groups of demonstrators in the Druze areas to the southwest. At the same time, even Alawite strongholds in the coastal city ofLatakia have witnessed violent demonstrations. Damascus claims that foreign instigation has played a hand in the unrest and has increasingly shifted its rhetoric to brand protesters as armed terrorists. Concurrently, an increasingly larger segment of the protest movement has begun to intensify its rhetoric from demanding political reforms to advocating regime change.
The regime has not hesitated to use force to put down demonstrations in areas where it deems them especially threatening. The use of the Syrian army — and live ammunition — against demonstrators first occurred March 18 in the southern city of Daraa, a stronghold forSyria’s conservative Sunni population. The army subsequently was deployed to the coastal cities of Latakia and Banias to contain demonstrations numbering in the thousands. The central town of Homs has been the latest Syrian city to see considerable amounts of violence as the army has tried to quell a revolt. Indeed, the Syrian interior ministry issued a statement April 18 specifically citing Homs and Banias as places where the regime was attempting to put down and “armed insurrection.” Protests also have occurred regularly in the Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria, a major cause for concern for Turkey, which fears a spillover of Kurdish unrest across the border. Meanwhile, unrest in Damascus — and especially in a nearby suburb called Douma — has been a constant, resulting in several deaths at the hands of security forces. (The regime counters that several of its police officers and soldiers have been killed as well.)
Al Assad also has attempted to mollify the demonstrators with concessions. Since mid-March, he has dissolved the special National Security Court; fired the governors of Baniasand Daraa governorates (where the army had cracked down violently on demonstrators); dissolved his Cabinet and named a new prime minister; promised citizenship rights to tens of thousands of Kurds; and promised a new party law that will, in theory, end the Syrian BaathParty’s monopoly on power. Arguably the most significant of al Assad’s concessions was the lifting of the state of emergency law, which has been in effect since the Baathists took power in 1963. The law had given legal cover for Syria’s internal security services to act without constraint in quashing any resistance to the Alawite regime since the Hafez al Assadpresidency and had been a focus for demonstrators’ ire. Those that remain on the streets, however, point to the fact that just as the state of emergency was lifted, a new law requiring all demonstrations to first have the approval of the interior ministry (which, in the current environment, is unlikely) largely renders the scrapping of the emergency law irrelevant.
Syria’s regime faces a dilemma. Al Assad cannot let up on the security crackdown and allow protests when the demonstrations have begun to take on such an anti-regime tone. However, if he decides to harden the crackdowns, all the concessions he has made thus far will be nullified in the eyes of the protesters, who will likely consider disingenuous any future pledges of reform from the regime. Al Assad has maintained the loyalty of all pillars of support within the Syrian state thus far, and the demonstrations themselves have yet to become large enough to pose an immediate threat to his position, but the Alawite-Sunni power relationship in the country could explode if the situation were to escalate. If that were to happen, the writ of the state would likely weaken considerably inside Syria’s borders, which would have a destabilizing effect beyond them as well.