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    Bashar Assad will find no long-term solution to Syrian unrest

    As millions of Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis and Libyans protested against their regime and called for reform and change, many analysts speculated that Syria was unlikely to be next.

    Five weeks ago, Syria appeared to be a powerful regional player with a domestic political status that left very little possibility for surprise. Snowballing demonstrations that would bring brutal reaction from the strong security organs were unlikely.

    Syria under the Assad family remains under tight control. The army as well as the security apparatus is run by trusted Alawite leaders. In addition, the legacy of brutality against internal opponents is well-known from the time of President Hafez Assad.

    In 2005, President Bashar Assad, without any political discussion, decided on his own to move toward what was viewed as economic liberalization. Such a step should have been linked to political reform, but nothing happened. Systemic corruption in the regime led to an economic justification for the birth of a new class of powerful elites in the immediate entourage of the president’s family. The idea that Syrian society would no longer tolerate all the forms of abuse and economic exploitation to which it had been subjected completely escaped Bashar.

    When violence first broke out in Daraa, rather than undertake steps toward reform and make concessions to absorb the demands of protesters, Assad reacted with excessive violence and repression. The disproportionately brutal reaction in Daraa caused snowballing demonstrations in many cities and towns.

    Assad’s speech before the Syrian Parliament on March 30 was a disappointment. Contrary to all expectations, it did not fulfill any of the public promises made earlier by his adviser Bouthaina Shaaban. He did not repeal the emergency law and he went so far as to accuse the protesters of being part of an external anti-Syria conspiracy hatched by the United States and Israel. In the weeks that followed, however, Assad sought to respond to the growing number of protesters with further concessions. He granted citizenship to stateless Kurds and last week finally lifted the state of emergency in force for the past 48 years.

    In reality, Assad enjoys broader popular support than did President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or President Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali in Tunisia. But he made a grave mistake when he decided to rely on his security organizations to quell the protests. He should have grasped from the beginning that in order to maintain his regime’s legitimacy he should have recognized the protesters quest for freedom, dignity and reform. He still fails to see that a resort to violence, as was visible last Friday throughout Syria, will only galvanize new segments of the population.

    The regime is now facing three different challenges. The first is resentment by a very large segment of the people who deplore the lack of freedom and justice. The second is the growing desperation of the poor due to the high rate of unemployment, low wages and soaring prices of commodities. And the third challenge is the staunch opposition to the regime on the part of thousands of dissidents living abroad, along with Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, Kurds and Palestinians in Syria.

    As the Syrian people continue to challenge Assad’s regime, the United States and the European Union are in no hurry to step forward to back the protesters and condemn atrocities committed on the Syrian streets. The reason behind such a policy seems to be a concern that change might bring about a government more hostile to Western interests. The nightmare scenario seems to be centered on the possibility of an Islamic theocracy led by the Muslim Brotherhood ruling in Damascus. Although the U.S. and the EU have very little influence over what is going on right now in Syria, they should call on Assad to make meaningful political reforms and should use the threat of increased sanctions.

    In Lebanon, there is general concern over what is happening in Syria as future developments may have a direct effect on the political, social, and economic stability of the country. Lebanese political factions are not unified in their interpretation of the Syrian crisis. While the March 8 majority perceives that the stability of Lebanon and its wellbeing depend greatly on the strength and stability of the Assad regime, the March 14 coalition sees the weakening of the Assad regime as a catalyst to achieve Lebanese sovereignty and independence. Additionally, many analysts link the present difficulties facing Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati in forming a new government to the fallout from Syria.

    The Assad regime does not have effective means to find a long-term solution. If there is one thing that we can predict, it is that the regime will do everything necessary to remain immune to popular demands for freedom and reforms. Assad saw what happened to Mubarak and Ben Ali when they began offering concessions. He has opted to project an image of strength and tight control. This policy may enable him to hold on to power for longer. On the other hand, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the regime may prove more brittle than we can predict right now.

    The Daily Star

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