x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A self-defeating response to Syria's protests

Every time that Damascus tries to put out a fire, it starts a dozen more.

Every time that Damascus tries to put out a fire, it starts a dozen more. In the wave of protests that began in January, the official strategy, or lack thereof, has been simple: make the minority Alawites, Christians and Druze feel that their survival is at stake if the regime falls. And simply intimidate the majority Sunnis.

It has been a reactive, ad hoc approach: when the Assad regime perceives a threat, it lashes out instead of formulating a coherent strategy. A silent majority of Syrians who are watching protests gain momentum - also angry but staying off the streets out of fear and a desire for stability - is further provoked towards open dissent with every act.

These self-defeating tactics have never been more apparent than in the past few days. On Saturday, security forces stormed a mosque in the southern city of Deraa, killing four. For devout Syrians, there are few outrages that could alienate the population more.

But perhaps even more damaging was the arrest at the weekend of Sheikh Abdulqader Khaznawi, a Kurdish and Sufi leader who commands broad support in the east of the country. Sheikh Khaznawi has spoken in support of the protests, but his arrest will do far more to mobilise his supporters than speeches ever would.

The Syrian regime is adamant that all protesters are religious extremists and terrorists - a claim that is false on its very face. Recent arrests, for example, have included a cleric in Damascus who publicly advocates secularism. Syrians of all faiths must realise that the regime's "war on terror" is nothing but a war on them.

It remains to be seen how this dangerous sectarian game will end. State television recently played up reports that protesters were shouting "Christians [to be sent] to Beirut; and Alawites to the coffin". In a multi-confessional country, tactics like these are fanning fears that are both real and imagined.

But instead of leading, President Bashar al Assad has continued to fiddle while his country burns. Ever since he first addressed the country in March, Mr al Assad has singularly failed to offer real reforms and instead invoked the bogeymen of foreign interference and extremism.

The Syrian regime has not learnt the lessons of recent months, lessons that several countries in the region should heed. Demands for reform cannot be sidetracked by empty promises, or silenced by strongarm tactics. The regime is losing its friends, including Turkey and Qatar, but stands to lose far more: its people.