Syrian President Bashar Assad has deployed all of the usual tools to cope with the protest movement that has blossomed within Syria’s borders. But, no matter how confident his recent words may seem, there are real fears in Damascus that Syria could be the next domino to fall.
In his speech on Wednesday, President Assad invoked an all-too common defense for regimes under siege from internal dissent. He blamed outside forces- labeling the nascent protest movement within Syria as a ‘plot’ by foreign governments. So far, around 60 to 150 people have been killed by security forces in protests that originally erupted in the south of the country. There are also recent reports of new protests in the coastal town of Latakia, though it should be noted that nothing substantial has broken out in Damascus as of yet.
Several signs point to the regime in Damascus eventually adopting a conciliatory route in dealing with the protests. This is less because they fear an expansion of Western military intervention and more the result of the situation on the ground in Syria. Some of the problems that proved so explosive in the case of Tunisia and Egypt- unemployment and poverty for example- are much less pressing in Syria. In Syria, one in ten lives under the poverty line. In Egypt, the figure is one in four. This is not to say that Syria doesn’t suffer from its own economic malaise, but rather that popular anger over the problem has not yet reached a fever pitch where the government’s hands are tied.
It should also be noted that the way the Syrian people perceive their government is substantially different than in Egypt or Tunisia. In the latter two countries, popular perceptions combined economic stagnation with a sense that their leaders were selling them out to the West. In other words, the West hailed Egypt and Tunisia as paragons of stability, overlooking a plethora of transgressions on human rights, and the result was a popular perception that their respective governments were kowtowing to the West for no real economic benefit. In the end, this created a crisis of nationalist legitimacy. Syria, on the other hand, has a much different strain of popular nationalism- one that prides itself on how the Assad government has stood up to Western pressure. This perception acts as yet another hedge against widespread anti-government protests.
So, given that the problems facing the regime in Damascus are substantially less serious than those which eventually crushed governments in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s likely that the Assad government will push for reconciliation if the protest movement continues to pick up steam. It would be, after all, merely a realization of the ‘Damascus Spring’ that occurred after the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000. One big step would be calling an end to the state of emergency, and there is already rampant speculation that a special committee formed by President Assad will be doing just that in the coming months.
In sum, it’s important to note that the Syrian situation differs drastically from that which unfolded in Egypt and Tunisia. While it’s likely that protests will continue to intensify over the short term, government-enacted reforms, whenever they come, will likely be enough to calm popular dissent.