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A Delicate Dance in Syria

Calling attention to the martyrs of Dara

Calling for change in Syria, let alone any of the Arab authoritarian states, is a daunting task.  The inevitable response for seeking minimal rights is pure violence. Still, this Syrian regime has shown itself to be slick in international affairs. Will it find the right balancing act to stop home-grown dissent?

The LA Times reported that the government repressed protests took place in different cites around the country.

Widespread protests for reform in the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad drew a severe response from security forces, who fired on demonstrators, witnesses say. Deaths are reported in the cities of Dara, Latakia, Homs and Sanamein as well as in the poor Damascus suburb of Madamayeh.

Today was a flashpoint. Protests that began Wednesday in Dara are now seen elsewhere. And the regime took force to civilians, leaving many bloody, beaten and dozens killed.

Brief flashes of dissent came out in Damascus, the regime’s seat.  They were quickly quelled be force.  Even in Latakia, the home of the al-Assads, demonstrators gathered.  Syrian will be sure to stop any protest movement in their tracks, whether through coercion or by offering out “reforms” in the hope of co-opting opposition movements.

Yesterday, Syrian officials announced social and economic reforms to meet peoples’ needs.  Left out were political changes, which the protesters are calling for.  The regime promised reforms without answering protester demands — which could encourage more dissent. Even if these promises were kept, they’d likely not be good enough. That, and the regime’s track record of broken promises on reforms, did little to prevent today’s demonstrations. More than a decade ago, when Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father, he pledged reforms.

There is a good chance the protests are being led by underground religionists, as this BBC backgrounder hints.  The regime’s harsh response beckons the memory of the government’s 1982 massacre in Hama of the Muslim Brotherhood.  They had militarized the struggle and took control of the city.  In this case, the protests are thus far largely non-violent and they are still met with brute force.

If the protesters are projecting religionism, they will have a hard time getting support from the progressive Syrian left, which is largely secular.  Taking a tone and broad umbrella approach requires the protesters find shared platform and discourses.   This could be difficult given the association of al-Assad’s regime and an intolerant form of secularism.

Syrian authorities arrested six bloggers, activists and journalists.   Most were released soon after.  The regime is rough, as the body count indicates, but is careful to not provoke even more outrage.  Striking the right balance would keep potential reformers away from the demonstrations.   A grand crime against humanity, could bring religious and secular Syrians wary of the regime together.

Assad-lovers hit in the streets of Aleppo

At the same time, and as with other countries, pro-regime protests are taking place.  Regime supporters in Aleppo indicated that there is some split in public’s views. In other places, they gathered outside of the offices of Al Jazeera, probably to make sure they are seen and heard.

If Syria develops as another center of Arab protest, it will give lie to the view that U.S. foreign policy was a pure liability for regimes.  It is likely that for a long time, “many young Syrians had been willing to overlook corruption, a lack of freedom and the slow pace of reforms in return for what they have seen as dignified leadership brought about by Assad’s anti-Western foreign policy” (Guardian). It was a foreign policy the relied on playing to different powers, the United States, Turkey and Iran, at different times. It avoided invasion by the United States, and advanced itself through the war on terror without being seen as a sell-out.

The uprisings against Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali show there was no such rhyme or reason, anyways. All the regimes have been pointing to external enemies for too long. Many of their people are sick of paying the price for so abstract a principle as security and stability.

The next wee will be very interesting for Syria.  If the regime overplays the repression card, the protests will only grow.  A regime that was seen as so nimble and strategic on the international playing field will be in deep trouble. Syrian protesters can blow it by arming themselves against a highly militarized state or letting its religiosity hew the movement for freedom. While they may make for sensible grassroots politics in some places, it will fail in Syria.

If I had to bet though, I would predict the Syrian regime will play the right cards — mixed reforms that appear to address protester demands with minimal repression to prevent meaningful momentum.  They seem to still have the wall of fear on their side, but also the institutional structure to be very effective protest killers.

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