After four months of a steadily intensifying popular uprising, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, is bracing for what may prove to be a climactic few weeks ahead.
August 1 marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan when pious Muslims fast during the daylight hours and — crucially in the Syrian context — visit mosques on a daily basis for prayer.
Since the uprising began in mid-March, demonstrations have focused on Fridays, Islam’s holy day of the week, when young men can freely gather in large numbers for prayers without hindrance from the security forces. Once prayers are over, the protestors are well placed to leave the mosques andlaunch straight into street demonstrations. In August, every day could be a Friday, turning this year’s Ramadan into a grinding and bloody test of stamina and determination on the part of both the protestors and the Syrian security forces. It is open to question how the already over-stretched security forces will be able to confront daily protests from opposition activists, many of whom will have the additional inspiration of the holy month to sustain them. On the other hand, if the security forces escalate their ruthless repression of the protest movement, with a corresponding escalation in casualties, the opposition activists will need all the resolve and nerve they can muster to keep returning to the streets day after day. Indeed, regardless of what one thinks of the Assad regime, the tenacity and courage of the protestors over the past four months has been extraordinary.
The Syrian security forces — using a blend of the elite Fourth Division headed by Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s younger brother, intelligence agents and shabiha militiamen drawn from the Alawite sect — have rushed from one flashpoint to another, using brute force in a bid to stifle the rebellion. But the protest movement has refused to yield and is slowly gaining traction with demonstrations growing ever larger and more widespread.
The army numbers some 220,000 regular troops, but the vast majority of them are ill-trained Sunni conscripts, most of whom presumably have little intrinsic loyalty to the regime. Indeed it is the Alawite-heavy Fourth Division, which numbers some 20,000 troops, that has spearheaded the crackdown. Minor fissures have appeared in the army, mainly due to individual soldiers refusing to open fire on protestors, and allegedly some have been shot for disobeying orders, have escaped into Turkey or Lebanon or have joined the ranks of the protestors. The number of defectors appears minimal at this stage and does not as yet presage a major split within the army. But the collapse of the army remains a possibility in the longer term, particularly if the protest movement continues to gather momentum and the security forces are seen as incapable of suppressing the dissent.
An indicator to look for is defections or signs of dissent among Alawite army officers in the weeks and months ahead. Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s uber-oligarch and cousin of the president, told The New York Times in May that the regime would “fight to the end”. Such stark comments raise the specter of a sectarian conflict between the majority Sunnis, sensing that their time for ruling the country is at hand, and the Alawites, who fear the backlash should they lose power. The Assad regime has played upon those fears of sectarian conflict. Certainly, the smaller communities in Syria — including the Christians and Druze — generally have dithered between throwing their weight behind the opposition in the hope of a peaceful transition to democracy, or standing with the regime and its protection of Syria’s diverse minorities.
Worryingly, there have been isolated incidents of sectarian violence, mainly in mixed Alawite and Sunni neighborhoods, although it is too soon to say whether this is a harbinger of a broader communal struggle to come.
Still, it is doubtful that the Alawites really would stick together for a “Masada-style” finale in their lofty redoubts in the coastal mountains. Indeed, many analysts conclude that it is a mistake to lump all Alawites together as a single pro-Assad block (similarly Syria’s Sunnis are not a homogenous group). Alawite unity has frayed in the 11 years that Bashar al-Assad has ruled Syria, with power becoming more centralized within the extended Assad clan. Hafez al-Assad, the former president, was careful to disseminate the privileges of power, not only among fellow Alawites but among the Sunnis too, thus blurring Alawite control of the levers of power and honoring in perception if not in deed the secular ideology of the ruling Baath Party.
Other than a split within the army, the other key dynamic under watch is the fate of the Syrian economy and how it could shape the out comeof the confrontation between the regime and the opposition. The economy has been badly hit by four months of unrest. Syria achieved growth of about 3.5 percent in fiscal year 2010, but the economy is contracting by about 3 percent this year. Tourism, a key sector that accounts for about 18 percent of the economy, has been heavily hit, with visitors staying away this summer and hotels reporting record vacancies.
Even before the uprising took hold, the Syrian economy was facing several long-term threats. They include declining oil production, high unemployment and a devastating five-year drought that has decimated arable production and driven many country dwellers into the cities. Increasing public debt has forced the state to curb its long-standing policy of subsidizing everyday goods, from electricity to bread and cooking gas — a legacy of the Baath Party’s original socialist principles. The removal of subsidies has led to increased inflation (15 percent in 2008) and price rises, aggravating the economic plight of many ordinary citizens and serving as a motive for the protests. Cheap clothes imports from China and Asia have also put many Syrian textile factories out of business.
At the beginning of the year, the Syrian government announced a five-year plan to attract $11 billion in foreign investment. But foreign investment has slowed. Qatar Electricity and Water has cancelled a $900 million project to build power plants, and other foreign companies are also considering canceling projects.
Syria’s business community so far has watched the unrest from the sidelines, unwilling to make any commitments that could backfire against profit margins. But the longer the uprising continues, the more the economy will stagnate, which could force the hand of the merchant class. But for now the heterogeneous and divided opposition has offered little in the way of reassurance to the merchant community about how it intends to usher in a stable, free market democracy.
How this ends is anyone’s guess. But it is evident that the Syria over which Assad presided at the beginning of the year has gone. There can be no return to the status quo that existed before March. Some analysts maintain that the Assad regime cannot prevail in this struggle because it faces a no-win situation. If Assad ushers in a meaningful program of reforms, it will undermine the regime’s grip on power, thus leading to its eventual demise. If it does nothing and continues to rely on force it is similarly doomed.
Most of Syria’s Arab neighbors have watched Assad’s tribulations with unease mixed with quiet schadenfreude, with the latter growing stronger the further the country lies from Syria’s borders (and reach). The West has generally limited its stance to the unrest in Syria with repeated calls for Assad to reform or face losing his legitimacy, a response that most Syrian opposition activists consider tepid and redundant given the nearly 1,500 people killed so far.
Ultimately, the fate of Syria may be decided in the coming weeks as the protestors and security forces gird themselves for the Ramadan protests and a contest to see which has the stronger staying power.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science
Monitor and The Times of London