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More empty promises will not appease Syria's protesters

The Syrian president Bashar al Assad is facing the most serious challenge to his rule since he inherited power after his father's death in June 2000. To avoid considerable bloodshed, he must move beyond the survival methods and political instincts of his father.

The Syrian president Bashar al Assad is facing the most serious challenge to his rule since he inherited power after his father's death in June 2000. Mr al Assad's security forces have been unable to quell a wave of protests that began last month in the southern town of Deraa and have since spread across the country. On Friday, Syria witnessed the largest demonstrations yet, as tens of thousands of protesters marched from several suburbs into central Damascus.

Mr al Assad has responded with a violent crackdown and token concessions - such as appointing a new cabinet - that failed to appease Syrians seeking dramatic change after 41 years of rule by the Assad family. While he appeared to go further on Saturday, announcing his intention to repeal the emergency law within a week, protesters remain understandably doubtful.

Expectations have been dashed before. In a much-anticipated speech on March 30, Mr al Assad did not lift the state of emergency in place since 1963 that grants wide authority to the secret police, or loosen his Baath Party's monopoly on power. Instead, he dismissed pro-democracy activists as "dupes" or saboteurs in a plot hatched by "foreign agents" to weaken Syria.

Mr al Assad enjoys greater popular support than other Middle Eastern rulers ousted by recent uprisings, such as Tunisian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But he risks squandering this political capital as his crackdown intensifies and he continues to ignore the need for fundamental change.

In resisting serious concessions, Mr al Assad is relying on a tactic that pervaded his father's rule. The Syrian regime does not respond to pressure, whether external or internal, and this principle has served it well in times of crisis.

But while this approach worked for Hafez al Assad during the three decades he ruled Syria, it is unlikely to work over the long-term for his son as he confronts a different and unprecedented type of pressure that is rooted in deep popular grievances.

The unrest shows little sign of letting up. Over the past week, protests spread to the coastal town of Banias and, perhaps most ominously for Mr al Assad's regime, to Aleppo, one of Syria's largest cities that was once a centre of resistance to the Baath Party. Human rights activists estimate that hundreds of demonstrators have been killed and hundreds arrested since protests began in Deraa, a Sunni town near the border with Jordan that has suffered from economic neglect by the central government.

Mr al Assad's main goal is to preserve the rule of his Alawite regime in a Sunni-dominated country. Unlike the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, it is unlikely that the Syrian military leadership would abandon the president. Most of the country's generals and top security officials are Alawite, and their fortunes are tied to his survival.

The Baathist regime also has a history of using extreme violence to suppress opposition. In 1982, as the Muslim Brotherhood carried out attacks against military and civilian targets in several cities, Hafez al Assad dispatched troops to the city of Hama to put down an Islamist uprising. The elder al Assad's forces levelled parts of the city, killing an estimated 20,000 people.

While the current wave of protests has been partly inspired by Sunni preachers in some cities and towns, the Syrian regime is not facing another Islamist uprising. Like other rebellions in the Arab world, the largest protests have taken place after Friday prayers. But many secular Sunnis, especially in Damascus, are still on the sidelines. If these Sunnis take to the streets in sustained, large-scale protests, then Mr al Assad's regime will face a grave danger.

Hafez al Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son. At the time it was believed that this soft-spoken ophthalmologist could never balance the regional cards as masterfully as his father. Over the years, however, the younger al Assad has grown comfortably into the role.

Mr al Assad had little time to master regional dynamics before being confronted with a serious external challenge. After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration turned its attention to Damascus as another candidate for "regime change". Syria meddled in Iraq, nurtured Palestinian militants opposed to peace with Israel, and dominated its smaller neighbour, Lebanon.

By 2009, Mr al Assad had waited out the Bush administration and was manoeuvring himself out of international isolation. But at the same time that he was reaching out to Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers, he maintained his relationship with Iran and its allies in the region: Hizbollah, Hamas and Iraqi Shiite factions. These moves are a classic example of the statecraft practiced by Hafez al Assad.

The younger al Assad has been deft at dealing with external pressure on Syria, applying the lessons of his father's foreign policy: stay firm, do not give ground in order to avoid appearing weak and grind down your opponents.

But today, he cannot hunker down and wait for the storm of protests to pass. To avoid considerable bloodshed, Mr al Assad must move beyond the survival methods and political instincts of his father.

 

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

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