There is no doubt that Friday, 15 April, marked a turning point in the Syrian uprising, whether in terms of the number of participants involved in public demonstrations, or in terms of the spread of the demonstrations throughout the country, to include cities with Kurdish, Druze and Christian majorities.
This may have prompted President Bashar al-Assad to try to contain the situation by delivering two speeches to the People's Council (parliament) and the Council of Ministers, announcing the lifting of the state of emergency and a dissolving of the state security courts, as well as offering vague promises about future reforms. On Thursday, 21 April , he approved cabinet's decision to abolish both the state of emergency and state security courts. Leaked reports, however, indicate that he had issued orders to suppress popular demonstrations that Syrian activists had announced for the next day. This is indeed what happened. Friday, 22 April, was a memorable day in the Syrian uprising – a day that saw the security forces targeting protesters in an unprecedented manner, killing over 100 people in a single day.
With this, Syria moved from one phase of its uprising that sought to build a state on the foundations of freedom, democracy and a just judiciary, into another.
The popular movement: Geographic expansion and social diversification
As the winds of Arab revolt began to blow late last December, and even after the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, few people had predicted that a popular movement would emerge so rapidly in Syria. The popular movement in Syria did indeed erupt, spreading to almost all parts of Syria in the demonstrations of Friday, 22 April. The next Friday (29 April) witnessed demonstrations in many parts of the country, wrecking the Syrian regime's hopes of containing the uprising by deploying troops and stepping-up its campaign of repression in Dar'a and Rif Dimashq.
As with Egypt, it cannot be said that there is one party or political movement that is behind the uprising, nor is there a particular individual leading it. What is clear is that Syrians of all classes have participated in the demonstrations, and that the number of Syrian academics and political and civil organisations supporting the popular demands is both large and diverse. Even the Kurdish majority areas, marked in the past few years by separatist tendencies, abandoned their national-sectarian demands and raised the banners of freedom and dignity that were being carried in other Syrian cities. It is not yet clear whether Alawite-majority areas are siding with the popular movement, but Syrian Alawite leaders, known for their opposition to the regime, have not hesitated in declaring their support for the people and their demands.
From the outset, Syrians have been conscious of the sensitivity around ethnic and sectarian diversity. As such, slogans emphasising the unity of the land and people, – and stressing the non-sectarian nature of the movement's demands – were popularised. Although the size of the movement in Damascus and Aleppo was smaller than in cities like Dar'a, Baniyas, Homs and the town of Rif Dimashq, the protest movements that emerged in Syria's two largest cities indicated that demonstrations were not confined to specific social classes – a phenomenon similar to that of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.
A single representative body that can speak on its behalf, or that clearly formulates and develops the demands of the uprising, has not yet emerged in the Syrian movement.
The regime: Threats and promises
During the first few weeks of the uprisings, aside from being ignored by the regime and having to face the usual repression through arrests of active opposition members, the popular movement received little attention from the regime . With a rising death toll and the realisation of the breadth of the movement's base, President Assad then attempted to contain the situation by offering some concessions of a political and social nature at the end of March and beginning of April.
The regime increased the salaries of public employees, conferred Syrian citizenship to thousands of Kurds who were denied this right for decades, and dismissed the cabinet. The president then delivered a speech to the People's Council in which he promised to take steps towards political reform, such as looking into lifting the state of emergency and considering possible constitutional amendments. President Assad asserted that these measures had been adopted at the local conference of the Baath Party six years earlier, but due to changes in the government's priorities, the implementation of these reforms had been delayed.
In the president's second public appearance, Assad issued instructions and recommendations to the new government to prepare for the decision to lift the state of emergency. He spoke about issues of limited significance, such as the ways ministers and public servants should treat citizens, and the need to confront corruption. However, he did not speak directly to the Syrian people, and did not apologise to the people for the rising death toll. He also stressed that Syria was facing an externally driven plot. He attempted to appear as a confident leader, able to govern in the face of a crisis that he was about to end.
As the protest movement grew, so did the level of violence employed by the regime's security apparatuses to suppress the demonstrations. By mid-April, Syrian human rights organisations had published the names of more than two hundred people killed by the regime's forces. In several of the cities that witnessed popular demonstrations, the presence of armed civilian groups was noticeable. The regime sometimes described these groups as paid terrorist groups from Jordan or the Future Movement, a Lebanese political movement. However, sectors aligned to the demonstrators described them as groups linked to the regime's security services.
It is clear that the regime has adopted a policy of promising future reforms of a limited and ambiguous nature, accompanied by a wide-scale crackdown that extends to all centres of popular opposition (the 'Hama option', as it is sometimes called – a reference to the 1982 crackdown by Syrian forces in the town of Hama when between 20 000 and 30 000 people were killed).
Several sources have suggested that, in order to justify its repressive measures, in a manner reminiscent of the Egyptian and Yemeni regimes' responses to their uprisings, the regime resorted to arming certain groups (possibly of non-Syrian origin) to attack both protesters and military units. That these armed groups enjoyed unrestricted mobility is atypical for a country like Syria. That these groups completely avoided demonstrations that took place in support of the regime, and usually stationed themselves atop government buildings, clearly indicates that they were linked to the regime and its apparatuses.
It was noted that during the demonstrations on Friday, 15 April, which had been preceded by President Assad's directive not to use force against demonstrators, not a single person was killed, whether from the military or the protesters. On the day that the president sought to avoid the use of force, even if it was just for a single day, the armed groups were nowhere to be seen.
The policy of repression reached its climax during the week following the Friday, 22 April demonstrations, when over 100 people were killed in a series of protests across the country, primarily in Dar'a and Rif Dimashq. The next day the army – particularly the fourth armoured division commanded by the president's brother – received orders to force Dar'a and Rif Dimashq to submit. This is a clear indication that the regime was determined to suppress the mass movement with all the force at its disposal, including the risky deployment of troops in the cities under rebellion. With the failure of the promise of, limited and vague, reforms to contain the mass movement, the regime unleashed a campaign of total repression. By the end of April the campaign of repression reigned supreme.
The regional and international position: Division and caution
Turkey, which has strong political and economic ties with Syria, was the first to call on the Syrian president to undertake a comprehensive reform programme to avoid aggravating the popular movement. This advice was communicated to the Syrian president in at least two telephone calls between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Assad, in a visit to Damascus by Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and in several visits by the head of Milli ?stihbarat Te?kilat? (MIT), Turkey's national intelligence service.
As the Syrian leadership dragged its feet in implementing reforms and intensified its repression of the popular protests, Turkish officials became more severe in their criticism of the Syrian president, albeit without implementing a break between Ankara and Damascus. The Turkish position, thus far, appears more cautious than that of Iran, the Syrian regime's primary ally. Iran declared its support for the regime, adopting Syria's position that the uprisings have been driven by a foreign plot. Indeed, an Iranian government spokesperson downplayed the number of victims killed during the uprising by suggesting that these deaths should be seen as relative to the number of victims in America's occupation of Iraq.
Most Arab states have ignored events in Syria; something that can be seen by the absence of the Syrian issue from statements issued by the League of Arab States. It is likely that the Arab states that would like to see regime change in Damascus, and even those that are ambivalent towards such a change, are not yet fully confident that such change is possible. The caution characterising the official Arab position, however, has not prevented most of the Arab media, even Saudi-owned media outlets, from devoting a great deal of coverage to the protests in Syria.
Arab countries that have expressed sympathy with the Syrian regime are by and large those that are themselves either facing mass uprisings, or expect to, such as Libya, Yemen and Algeria. There are also indications that the ruling Shiite political forces in Iraq areas concerned about developments in Syria as their Iranian neighbours.
At an unofficial level, there seems to be confusion in the Arab political arena regarding the Syrian situation. Arab movements and personalities known for their opposition to the Syrian regime have stepped up their criticism and condemnation of the regime's policies, declaring unequivocal support for the popular movement. Those that have been known for their solidarity with Syria's support for the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance and its opposition to US policies appear to be divided into two main camps.
The first of these includes those who see the Syrian uprising as similar to those of the other popular Arab revolutions in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. This camp sees the support of the popular movement and the condemnation of the Assad regime's repressive response as necessary.
- The second camp includes those who believe that the Syrian case is different from Egypt and Tunisia. They hold that what is necessary is to stand in solidarity with the regime, while simultaneously calling on it to implement political reforms.
At an international level, there was no concrete reaction by western powers and international organisations about developments in Syria throughout the second half of March. On the contrary, remarks from Washington and Paris confirmed that a western intervention in Syria akin to that in Libya would not take place. It seemed as if western powers fear the the uncertainty that may result from regime change in Syria. What we can tell from the US president's remarks is that the United States seeks to drive a wedge between Iran and Syria, and to affect the latter's policy of supporting resistance forces in the region.
With the escalation of the Syrian popular movement, the regime's policy of repression and the rising number of casualties, western states have taken punitive measures against Syrian officials, and intensified official statements condemning the regime's policy of repression, without declaring support for regime change. Russia, however, appears to be more sympathetic to the Assad regime, and opposes any external interference. Both Russia and China have played a major role in preventing the UN Security Council from issuing a presidential statement condemning the Syrian regime's repressive actions, even though a presidential statement is the weakest form of action that can be taken by the Council. By the end of April,the only action taken at an international level was a resolution issued by the UN Human Rights Council. However, by early May the European Union and the US had imposed sanctions on certain senior Syrian officials.
With the protests ongoing, what is clear is that the Syrian people will refuse to go back to the situation that existed prior to the uprising. President Assad's vague and restricted statements have neither appeared to be convincing to the people, nor have they managed to reassert his credibility. It also does not appear that that the Syrian people are ready to accept the regime's conflicting accounts of what is happening in the country as these accounts have lacked both logical coherence and convincing evidence.
There is no doubt that the increasing number of imprisoned, wounded and killed are indicative of the regime's lack of commitment regarding the long overdue and promise reforms. Furthermore, even if the regime does undertake radical and comprehensive reforms with a clear timetable, it is no longer certain that it will be successful in containing the popular movement; the brutality of the regime's repression may have gone too far in the sense that the population may no longer consent to the regime remaining in power - regardless of the reform measures it takes.
The regime faces a dilemma that is only being exacerbated by its means of dealing with the uprising. It is clear that since Friday, 22 April, the regime has resorted to the 'Hama option' in dealing with the demonstrations; that is, letting loose troops loyal to the regime on the city of Dar'a – that has since become a symbol of the uprising – regardless of the number of people killed and the devastation wrought upon the city. Through such action the regime believes it can teach other Syrian cities a lesson in a manner that would quell the popular movement, just as it did in the early eighties.
The problem for the regime is that what Syria is now witnessing is not analogous to 'Hama' in the sense that the international and regional contexts, as well as the size, facets and demands of the Syrian revolution today, are entirely different from those that the regime faced in the late seventies and early eighties. If the regime sees force as the solution, it will not only need to suppress Dar'a, but perhaps all Syrian cities involved in the uprising before it can be assured of a return to a pre-uprising state of affairs. Such an option, however, has become untenable.
On the other hand, neither the nature of the ruling Syrian elite, nor the regime's record of responding to opposition, suggest that the Syrian revolution will be able to achieve its goals as quickly as the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, or with relatively limited loss of life from the ranks of the revolutionaries. The Syrian ruling elite is defending highly complex political, economic and religious interests, both regionally and locally, and has witnessed for itself the fate of those overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt. As such, the ruling elite will go to extreme lengths to ensure a maintenance of the status quo in Syria.
The position of the Syrian armed forces only adds to the complexity of the situation. The Syrian military is divided in terms of leadership and role, as well as in terms of loyalty to the regime. As such, the possibility that the Syrian armed forces will take a unified position or play a unified role, as in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases, is unlikely. What is likely is that the regime will enjoy unwavering loyalty from a considerable number of units in the armed forces.
Although there is debate about the regime's reliance on Syria's Alawite sect for support, the Alawite community is certainly not fully united behind the regime. Indeed, the size of Alawite opposition to the regime will only increase with the continuation and escalation of popular opposition movements.
Ultimately, the regime's fate will depend on the perseverance of the Syrian people in their pursuit of political change, and their ability to confront the regime's massive apparatus of repression. Also particularly crucial will be Iran and Turkey's position, followed by the positions of the Arab world and the international community. While Iran has announced its explicit support for the regime and has played down the victims of the uprising, the important variable that has yet to be fully formulated will be the position of Turkey – the second of Syria's regional allies which has close economic ties with Syria, has a large shared border, and has played an important role in shielding the Syrian regime over the last decade.
*This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between AMEC and the Doha-based AlJazeera Centre for Studies. It was originally published by the AlJazeera Centre in Arabic, and was translated into English by AMEC.