Syrian Leader Digs In For A Long Battle

Sep 28, 2011

After seven months of protests in Syria, the international community has stepped up economic pressure, and some of Syria's traditional allies have turned into critics.

Yet President Bashar Assad presses on with a relentless and bloody crackdown, and his government seems to be operating on its own timeline when it comes to the uprisings that have already toppled several Arab regimes.

The events in Syria suggest it's time for a reassessment of the Arab spring, according to Vali Nasr, a former U.S. government adviser and Middle East scholar at Tufts University.

"In light of what is happening in Syria, we have to realize that the path to democracy is not going to be straight and quick," he says.

The process is just beginning in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The outcome in Syria is more uncertain, Nasr says.

"The path to something better in Syria may in the short run have to go through a messy conflict that we have to be prepared for and know how to manage," he says.

Role Of Regional Players

Assad's exit is far from clear. The longer he stays in power, the more violent the country is likely to become, according to diplomats in Damascus.

The Obama administration is reportedly working with Turkey on ways to manage the fallout from a civil war in Syria, says Tarek Masoud of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He adds that Syria's neighbors are increasingly worried about what would happen if Syria implodes.

"There are a lot more important players who are invested in the stability of the Syrian regime than were invested in the stability of the Libyan one," he says.

Iran has sent cash to shore up Syria's economy. In neighboring Lebanon, new popular songs praise Syria's president, while Hezbollah, the country's Shiite Muslim group, backs him, too.

The head of Lebanon's Maronite Christian Church, Patriarch Beshara Rai, has warned that the end of the Syrian regime threatens Christians across the Middle East.

But Arab leaders, led by Saudi Arabia, have begun to abandon Assad, challenging Syrian claims that terrorist groups are leading the uprising.

"Nobody believes that argument; the intelligence gave a very clear picture of what is taking place in Syria," says Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who said he was allowed to listen in on a conversation with the Syrian president.

"I heard a telephone conversation between a Saudi official and Bashar al-Assad and the [Saudi] official was just laughing, he did not believe it. It was unconvincing," Khashoggi says.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has recalled his ambassador to Syria. The Saudi-backed satellite channel, Al-Arabiyah, has stepped up coverage, featuring videos showing gruesome violence by the Syrian security forces against demonstrators. The Saudi leadership has given up on Assad, says Khashoggi.

Even so, he says it will be difficult for the Saudis to take more measures.

"Right now, the Syrian army is occupying the Syrian cities," Khashoggi says.

Country's Unique Complexities

There is no Saudi backing for military intervention, he says, which raises the question: Is Syria's Arab spring about to enter an even more violent season?

Attacks against the Syrian army are growing, but demonstrations remain largely peaceful for now, says Peter Harling, with the International Crisis Group in Damascus.

"They've been preparing themselves for confrontation if there is no alternative, but showing considerable restraint," he says of the protesters.

Some on the street now ask whether peaceful protest is the way to go.

"This is also the expression of a great degree of frustration" over the cost, says Bassam Haddad, an academic and author of a book on Syria's political economy. With almost 3,000 dead, he adds, something has to give.

"We are talking about a death rate of 100 people per week, and for this to continue for 14, 18 and 20 weeks is just unfathomable," he says.

Syria is far more complex than Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. It's a multiethnic society, including a Christian community that dates to the first century. These communities have deep fears as well as demands, which raises complicated questions, says Josh Landis, an influential blogger on Syria who also teaches at the University of Oklahoma.

"And so, it's not a simple matter of the good people against the bad dictator, which is the way we've tried to paint all of these stories," he says.

The Syrian story is of a minority sect, the Alawites, who have ruled over a majority Sunni Muslim population for 40 years, carefully granting favors to other minorities and ethnic groups in exchange for loyalty, says Landis.

"The minority populations, 25 percent of Syria, and certainly the Alawites, 12 percent, are going to cling to this regime, and they are going to fight to the bitter end," he says. "And so it will have aspects of ethnic and religious war, as well as democracy-lovers against the tyrants."

So far, the Arab revolts have lasted a few weeks to a few months. But Syria appears to be very different, as the protests continue with the prospect of more violence to come.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.