x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Reason to be sceptical about a new dawn in Syria

Syria has had many false springs before and this one is just as likely not to blossom.

Once again, we are in unknown territory. The arrest of 15 children in the southern Syrian city of Deraa last week for writing revolutionary slogans has sparked an unprecedented crisis for Syria's president.

For the fourth consecutive day , thousands took to the streets of Deraa mourning Raed al Kerad, a young protester killed on Sunday by security forces. Protests erupted in the southern city after a peaceful demonstration for political freedoms was fired upon by security forces on Friday. Funerals for two of the dead brought 10,000 people to the streets of the city the following day. Since then, the authorities have reacted quickly, sending government representatives to calm tensions while at the same time bringing out the army to meet them. Military checkpoints were set up on all roads leading into the city.

If the revolutions of North Africa have proved anything, it is that outdated notions of the stability of regimes in the region can quickly unravel. Presidents and governments that seem permanent can vanish within days.

Yet Syria's president Bashar al Assad has been here before. The security institutions he inherited from his father Hafez al Assad - who ruled Syria unopposed for three decades - have served him well. Although young and inexperienced when he took power a decade ago, Mr al Assad has already survived two "Arab Springs" - and emerged stronger.

The first was of his own making. In the months after Mr al Assad took over the presidency in 2000, there was a gradual relaxation of the strict curbs on political activity. Discussion clubs took off, lectures and gatherings were held, even new magazines licensed. Previously taboo discussion of political and social changes was permitted.

Mr al Assad himself gave strong speeches in favour of reform, saying in his inaugural address that he wanted to reform the economy, modernise the legal system and erode the stifling bureaucracy. He even mentioned the D-word: "Democracy is our duty towards others before it becomes a right for us."

This was the so-called Damascus Spring and it came to an abrupt halt in the summer of the following year. The government, apparently alarmed at the spread of political activity, forcibly shut down discussion clubs and jailed activists. Many were not released for years.

The second "Spring" came four years later. The invasion of Iraq - and the post 9/11 world - put intense pressure on Damascus and the Bush administration spoke openly of Syria as the next "domino" to fall. With thousands of US troops across the border in Iraq, the leadership in Damascus was nervous.

Then came 2005 and Rafiq Hariri. After the former Lebanese prime minister was killed in a massive explosion in Beirut, tens of thousands of Lebanese took the streets, blaming the Syrian government next door. Such an outpouring of people power was unprecedented and the anger was focused on Syrian troops, who had maintained a presence in the country for decades. Under immense pressure, Syrian troops withdrew.

The Beirut Spring represented the high point for Lebanon and the lowest point of Bashar Al Assad's rule. In the months after, as I reported from the country, there was a palpable sense that change was coming. Activists and political insiders spoke for the first time of life "AA" - after Assad.

Yet the president survived and emerged stronger. The chaos that enveloped Iraq gave Syrians who yearned for change pause for thought. Long a bastion of stability in the region, Syria was the only country of its neighbours not to have civilians die in a terrorist attack. With every day bringing fresh casualties in Iraq and a flood of refugees into Damascus, there seemed to be good reason to stick with a stable, if repressive, government.

Iraq also humbled the Americans, cancelling all talk of "regime change". The Bush administration, which had ruled out talks with the Syrians in the wake of the Iraq invasion, now found themselves having to invite Syria (and Iran) to a "neighbours" conference, to try and extricate itself from the mess of Iraq. By 2007, Mr Assad's position was secure.

Can he survive this time? Most likely. Unlike in Egypt, the outside world has little leverage. The United States had given the Egyptian military billions of dollars in aid over the decades: there was a way to remove the figurehead but keep the institutions.

Syria will be a tougher out: the ruling elite are composed primarily of Allawis, a minority religious sect ruling over a majority Sunni Muslim population. The Allawis fear repercussions if the current leadership goes and will fight hard to preserve it.

And it's not only the Allawis. Talk of another Damascus Spring suggests a better dawn for Syria's citizens. But many are sceptical of what might comes after. In particular, many Christians and Muslims in the cities prefer the enforced secularism of Mr al Assad's government; they fear an Islamist takeover in his stead.

"The people demand the fall of the regime" were the words the school children are reported to have written on the walls of Deraa. In 2001 and 2005 - even in 2010 - such words would have seemed like wishful thinking. Now they seem like a warning. The lessons from recent Syrian history are that Mr al Assad will probably survive this challenge. Whether his regime survives unchanged is a different question.