Deraa demonstrators breach fear barrier – Assad will seek to rebuild it

Jerusalem Post, 21/3/11

Demonstrations flared all weekend in the southern Syrian city of Deraa.

On Friday, four people had died as Syrian security forces sought to quell the protests. On Sunday, participants in mass funerals for the dead called for “freedom and an end to corruption,” and demanded that the US, France and international human rights organizations condemn the Syrian regime’s use of violence against civilians.

The security forces sought to disperse the protests using tear gas. Syrian air force planes encircled the city as demonstrators burned tires. Opposition sources reported that machine gun fire was directed at protesters.

Opposition websites have named the dead in Deraa as Mahmoud al-Jawabra, Wissam Ayyash, Hussam Abd-al Wali and Ayham al-Hariri. An amateur video purporting to show the death of al-Jawabra is in circulation.

The city of Deraa has been declared a closed zone. Reports suggest a very large presence of security forces there. A prominent opposition website is reporting tens of additional wounded, and at least one additional fatality.

Simultaneously, the Syrian authorities are seeking, with some clumsiness, to placate the demonstrators. The regime has appointed a “committee of inquiry.”

Officials are repeating a somewhat ludicrous version of events according to which those who were killed on Friday did not die at the hands of the security forces, but were rather killed by provocateurs who had disguised themselves as Syrian security personnel.

Deraa, a poor city in the Hauran region close to the border with Jordan, has seen the most sizable protests so far. But demonstrations have also taken place in Homs, Damascus and its environs, Der el Zor, the Kurdish city of Qamishli, Banias and Aleppo.

The authorities have clearly been caught by surprise.

President Bashar Assad, leader of one of the most repressive regimes on earth, had complacently explained in recent weeks that Syria would not be affected by the unrest sweeping the Arab world because the regime’s policies were in tune with popular sentiment.

This contention has now been disproved. However, this does not mean that the demise of the Syrian regime is imminent. Nor does it mean that the sentiments of significant sections of the demonstrators differ from those of the regime in certain important areas – particularly regarding Israel and the West.

As events in Deraa already illustrate, the Syrian regime is predictably willing to employ extreme force against its own people – up to and including live ammunition against protesters.

This is not a sign of the regime’s strength, but rather, paradoxically, of its vulnerability.

In Egypt and Tunisia, elements of the regime were able to enter into a certain dialogue with the protesters. Unpopular regime figureheads were replaced, while the military went on to steward the process of reform.

In Syria, the regime has less room to maneuver. The Assad family dictatorship may count with some confidence on the support only of its fellow Alawis – around 12 percent of the population. The regime maintains its grip not through the seeking of legitimacy, but through the imposition of fear.

Syria is an ally of Iran – not of the US – and therefore has less reason to be concerned at the possibility of its patron being displeased by an excessive use of force. Thus, the prospect of this regime employing extreme measures – should the protests continue and spread – is very real.

The Assad regime has long sought to justify itself in the eyes of its people by depicting itself as Israel’s most staunch opponent. An alternative narrative, however, pertains among the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni opponents of the regime.

This version has been in evidence among the protesters. A protest reported to have taken place near the town of Kuneitra on the Golan Heights saw protesters referring to Assad as a “traitor” who is “guarding the border of Israel.” An unnamed speaker claimed that the Syrian security services were supported by Israel.

Sentiments of this kind are in line with the Muslim Brotherhood’s characterization of the regime as Israel’s “main protector.” According to this view, Assad’s maintaining of quiet on the Golan Heights is a mark of submission to Israel.

Some Sunni oppositionists even extend this perspective to southern Lebanon, where they claim that the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement also protects Israel by preventing Sunni jihadis from attacking it.

This logic, if it can be referred to as such, shows that Israel is unlikely to be able to stay out of the “conversation” if protest spreads in Syria. It also indicates that a post-Assad Syria – in the event that the regime were to depart the stage – would be unlikely to be more amenable to Israel.

There are already notable indications of attempts by Sunni Islamists to take a leading role in the protests in Syria. Protests in Banias were led by a Sunni cleric, as witnessed in videos circulated afterwards.

Exiled Islamist leaders such as Sheikh Issam al-Attar have issued statements calling for an escalation of the demonstrations. So the protests look set to continue.

The opposition currently believes that Assad is scared. Caught in the headlights.

The Syrian dictator – who proved over the last half decade to be no less capable of cruelty and cunning than was his father – will be looking to dispel this sense in the days ahead.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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