The fighting in Libya has dominated the headlines, largely overshadowing the violent protests in Syria. But President Bashar Assad’s dismissal of his government on March 29 thrust Syria and its troubles onto the front page. Unlike Libya, Syria is a key country in the Middle East, and its destabilization could have dramatic consequences for the region.
The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, but the ruling Assad family is from the minority Alawite sect. For centuries, the Alawites have fused elements of Shiite Islam, Christianity and uniquely Alawite traditions.
The Alawites have been the most politically active group in Syria, and they received many key posts in the government after Hafez Assad, the father of the current president, came to power in February 1971. By that time, Shiite religious leaders, motivated by political reasons, had recognized Alawites as part of their religion. Even as Shiites, however, the Assad clan still belonged to a religious minority in a predominantly Sunni country, which is why the current Syrian government is deeply secular.
Contrary to expectations, this has not made Syria particularly vulnerable during a time of growing Islamic radicalism. Instead, Syria gradually became the main Arab ally of Shiite-ruled Iran. Through Syria, Iran funds Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. Radical Palestinian organizations also see Syria as a major supporter due to its hostile attitude toward Israel.
Strange though it may seem, the bulk of Israeli politicians want Syria to remain stable. If Assad is overthrown, Israel’s border with Syria, which has been quiet for over 30 years, could become battleground under new political leadership.
The United States, which until quite recently viewed Syria as an enemy alongside Libya and Iran, has gradually come to realize that peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors is impossible without Syria’s support. Moreover, Syria alone is capable of resolving the conflict between Hamas, which now rules Gaza, and Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, which controls the West Bank.
In 2010, the West changed its policy toward Syria, seeking to woo this critical Middle East power away from Iran.
Syria has also become the main strategic partner of Turkey, whose influence in the Middle East is growing rapidly. Although they came to the brink of war over a territorial dispute several years ago, the Kurdish problem has brought the two nations together.
In 2004 government forces put down a Kurdish revolt in the north of Syria with great difficulty, but tensions could boil over any day. Meanwhile, Kurdish separatists in Turkey have called off their truce with government forces, which could have a significant impact on the upcoming parliamentary elections in June 2011.
Therefore, Turkey will do its best to prevent destabilization in Syria and new unrest in the Syrian part of Kurdistan.
In short, everyone wants Assad to remain in power. U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have given Assad tacit approval to put down the protests by stating that the United States won’t enter into the internal conflict in Syria.
Syria faces the same economic and social problems that plague the majority of Arab countries, including nearly 25% unemployment among young people and very modest living standards compared to other Arab countries. It not surprising that Syria got caught up in the wave of protests that have swept the Arab world.
The situation was further aggravated by a crippling drought in Syria’s farming region around Dera’a, where the first bloody clashes were reported before demonstrations spread to other cities. In other Arab countries, protesters demanded the resignation of their leaders; in Syria, people say they want the government to resign, but not everyone is against Assad – far from it.
For a variety of reasons, Assad’s grip on power is much firmer than that of his less fortunate colleagues in the region. Unlike in Egypt, the army in Syria cannot act as a mediator (and has never tried), because it is fully controlled by the president. Bashar Assad and his father somehow managed to prevent their generals from becoming political leaders.
The secular opposition in Syria is not unified, and, moreover, it is disconnected from the people. The Islamic organizations, although they are closer to the people, have no foreign support. Besides, Assad has repeatedly launched political attacks against Syria’s Islamic organizations, preventing them from gaining influence and producing popular leaders.
President Assad has announced reforms in a bid to keep tensions from escalating into full-scale civil unrest. He has promised to lift the 48-year emergency law and to liberalize the country’s political system. After protesters were killed last week, Assad shifted the blame onto his ministers, whom he later fired.
On March 24, he put forward a reform plan that includes creating a multiparty system, adopting a new law on the media, reforming the courts, and redoubling efforts to fight unemployment and corruption. He began by raising salaries to public servants by 30%.
A savvy politician, Assad has managed to turn the dismissal of the government into a PR coup for himself. Happy Syrians held demonstrations in many cities in support of their president and his reforms.
Assad will most likely succeed in quelling the protests, while at the same time drawing out the reform process and postponing the first multiparty elections. This may provoke new unrest directed against the president himself. But by that time, the situation in the Arab world will most likely have evolved, and the dominos will have stopped collapsing.
For now, Bashar Assad has achieved his goal: he has bought himself some time.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.