Special report: The squeeze on Assad

The regime of Bashar Assad is tottering. The extraordinary endurance of demonstrators week after week is paying off. His fall would probably trigger a short-term surge in violence, but a better government would emerge

IT WAS the biggest meeting of its kind for decades: under the watchful eye of President Bashar Assad’s security goons, 150 dissidents, veteran opposition figures and former political prisoners met in Damascus on June 27th to denounce the regime’s brutality and demand a peaceful transition to democracy. The street protesters dismissed the conference as a compromise with the regime. They want no truck with it. “We hate the government,” says one young man who was detained and tortured. “That’s all that counts now.” Other demonstrators parody Muammar Qaddafi’s threat to hunt down opponents “alley by alley”. “Alley by alley, house by house,” they chant, “We want your head, O Bashar.” But the Damascus meeting, and uprisings in towns such as Hama and Deir ez-Zor, shows that Syria’s opposition has gone from being a few scattered groups holding spontaneous, isolated protests in March to become a nationwide force.

More than 100,000 people now demonstrate every Friday and the regime cannot rein them in, though it has closed roads to restive towns, reinforced the borders and restricted access to the internet. Demonstrations have been held in at least 150 towns and villages in all corners of the triangle-shaped country. Malls and souks are deserted. Cafés are half-full, the smell of cardamom coffee and cherry tobacco spicing the habitués’ anxious questions.

Will Syria end like Egypt and Tunisia? It seems unlikely, at least in the short run. In those countries the army sided with the protesters, whereas in Syria it has not. Might Syria follow Libya’s example? So far, there are no signs of a regional split. What about Iran, which brutally and successfully crushed a revolt in 2009 and which is a close Syrian ally? Even that is different. Iran is run by an elected government (though the poll was rigged), not a single family. It has endless oil reserves; its sectarian divide is minor and its security forces more sophisticated. Syria’s have so far killed 1,500 people, ten times as many as in Iran. Most significantly, the Assad regime—half a dozen family members call the shots—has acted erratically. Bashar, the president, swings between brutal crackdowns and vacuous concessions. That does not bode well for a dictator under pressure.

In contrast, Syria’s opposition is becoming more coherent, as well as more widespread. It is centred on a youth movement based outside the capital. Its detractors are right when they say that few articulate leaders have emerged, no formal structures exist and many of the demonstrations have taken place outside big cities.

But this is no peasant revolt. It has the support of large parts of the Sunni Muslim clergy. University graduates and longstanding dissidents, on the fringes at first, now march alongside day labourers. Political parties are being revived, including a Liberal Party which was stillborn six years ago. The city of Hama—site of a massacre of protesters ordered by Mr Assad’s father in 1982—slipped briefly out of official control in May. In recent days the security forces seem to have withdrawn from the city altogether.

The protesters are resilient partly because they are organising themselves into many small groups. Activists are setting up cells of about 20 people, connected to each other by only one leader. Some networks rely on the anonymity of the internet. But with only about a fifth of Syrians online, traditional bonds are more important. Tribal, professional and collegiate relationships of trust are harder to shut down than phone lines.

But if their organisation is loose, the protesters show a remarkable unity of purpose. They want what everyone in the Arab spring wants: elections, freedom of speech and assembly, protected status for minorities, an end to the regime’s repression. Some organisers have asked eminent economists for advice on market reforms. They show political sophistication by talking of a “civil” democracy, not a “secular” one. To many Muslims, secular means godless and wayward.

If the demonstrators were to topple the government, they could draw on capable technocrats to form an interim administration. Among them is Abdullah Dardari, a former deputy prime minister and senior United Nations official, who is liked from Washington to Riyadh. He was Mr Assad’s chief economic reformer until he was fired soon after the protests started—a target for the regime’s hardliners and a scapegoat for its failings.

In the past the Assads have relied on public indifference as well as outright repression. Syrians used to look at neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq and conclude that stability mattered more than freedom. But the killing of so many countrymen this year is changing that view. “We have become citizens, when once we were sheep,” says a middle-class Damascene. Fear of the security forces, which once kept millions at home, is ebbing. No authoritarian state can survive a sustained decline in its authority—and the government’s writ is shrinking visibly. The police no longer issue speeding tickets or parking fines. Unlicensed traders in the souks—once chased away—now occupy prime spots. Illegal construction is rampant. “Everyone is adding a new floor to their house,” says a home owner. “Officials no longer object.”

Above all, the killings and detentions are failing to cow the protesters. Torture victims have become protest organisers. At an underground meeting in June, one of many victims of the regime described being doused in cold water before being electrocuted by cables attached to his genitals. His aim—to inspire, not scare, the protesters—seemed to be achieved.

The momentum of change may accelerate soon. Ramadan begins in early August and many Syrians will then start to visit their mosques, rallying points for the demonstrations, daily, rather than weekly. The protest leaders think this may prove a turning point: “Friday every day,” they say.

Many Western observers are sympathetic to the protesters but sceptical of their strength and coherence. What matters more is the regime itself. Its power is fast eroding. It could collapse under the weight of its own failings.

Brick wall ahead

The immediate threat comes from the economy. Business activity is down by about half, according to entrepreneurs and analysts. A company selling car-engine oil has seen sales drop by 80%. “And this is not a luxury product,” says one of the owners. Most firms have sacked employees or cut pay or both. According to rough estimates, unemployment has doubled this year from about 10%. Officials worry that grain supplies are low and food shortages could come soon. Trade is down between 30% and 70%, depending on where you are, and that was before a new round of sanctions imposed by the European Union, Syria’s biggest trading partner. Foreign investment, on which Syrian growth has been built in recent years, has dried up. In a recent speech, Mr Assad talked about the threat of “economic collapse”.

Public finances are in deep trouble. The president has raised government salaries and various subsidies to appease the populace. He cannot afford to do this. The government will probably print the money to meet its promises, so runaway inflation is likely, further fuelling popular anger as cash deposits become worthless.

Capital flight is rampant. Drivers on the roads into Lebanon talk of clients going from their bank in Damascus straight to one in Beirut, carrying large bags. According to one estimate, $20 billion has left the country since March, putting pressure on the Syrian pound. To slow capital flight, the government has raised interest rates. A phone company controlled by the Assad family sent out messages urging people to put money back into their accounts.

But a run on the banks cannot be ruled out. Over the past few years, about 60% of lending in Syria has been for people to buy their own cars. Many can no longer keep up with payments. A leading financier says, “If one of the smaller banks defaults, we all go down.” Some branches are even displaying millions of dollars—in bundles of notes piled head high—to reassure worried customers. Some keep enough cash in the vaults to repay almost half their depositors on the spot.

“We are heading for a brick wall,” says a man responsible for several percentage points of GDP. With the regime bust, the elite is likely to be asked to bail it out. Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s richest man and the president’s cousin, said as much during a recent press conference. Having pledged to give up part of his wealth, he added: “I call upon Syrian business leaders to follow this example because our nation is in need of support. The time has come for giving rather than taking.”

But Syria’s captains of industry are asking whether they must “go down with the ship”, as one puts it. Some are taking their children out of private schools in Damascus to send them abroad. One prominent businessman who long flaunted his closeness to the president has given a Western ambassador a list of his supposed disagreements with the regime. “For my file,” he says. Another has been donating blood to support the protesters. In Homs, the country’s third city, businesses have started paying protesters’ expenses.

The central compact of the Assad regime is breaking down. The president’s family is from a minority Muslim sect, the Alawites, who are rank outsiders in Syria, accounting for around 10% of the population. His father seized power in 1970 and struck a bargain with the richest merchants, who are mostly from the Sunni majority, who make up 75%. In return for political support, the regime pledged to protect their wealth. The merchants got rich but few warmed to the Assads or their Alawite cronies, who have behaved like mafiosi, demanding a slice of every pie. Now a growing number of merchants believes the regime has become bad for business. They think that rather than ensuring stability, it is the main cause of instability, deliberately stoking sectarian tensions to scare people off the street.

Other parts of the Assad coalition are wobbling, too. Christians, numbering around 10%, have long backed the regime, calculating that they are better off with the Alawites than they would be under majority Sunni rule. But that too may be changing. Christian leaders who were fervently backing the regime a month ago are now more cautious. They still fear being targeted if civil strife erupted. But it is no longer clear the Alawites would protect them. Some Christians have joined protests.

Syria’s sizeable Kurdish minority (about 10% of the population) is also trying to work out who would best serve their interests. The regime has offered to return the citizenship which it took away from some of them in 1963. Iraqi Kurdish leaders, including President Jalal Talabani, whose people across the border have won autonomy, have been giving advice. Some Syrian Kurds are demonstrating against the regime—though they (and the protest leaders) are wary of making the opposition seem like an ethnic uprising.

Even the Assads’ own Alawite minority is not guaranteed to support the regime. If there were a civil war they would no doubt stick together. But Alawite families provide some of the most prominent dissidents, including a poet called Adonis, Aref Dalila, an economist, and Louay Hussein, a writer and activist. Although the Assads have looked after their own relatives, most Alawites remain desperately poor. Some villages in their home region near the Turkish border do not have running water. Their leaders are said to have quietly contacted Sunni imams to seek security guarantees in return for abandoning the Assads.

Reform, repression or regional war?

Indeed, the only people the regime can really count on seem to be the security forces. The top brass—mostly staffed by Alawite loyalists—has given no hint of switching sides. And now that they have spilled so much blood, their options are limited. Even so, months of cracking down are taking a toll. In some hotspots troops are short of rations and depend on local people for food. Expanding operations further will be difficult. A number of units are being kept out of the fight because they are not trusted, especially ones filled with Sunnis. Manaf Tlass, a senior commander in the elite Republican Guard and son of a former defence minister, is staying home for unknown reasons.

According to some analysts, only a quarter of the total armed forces of roughly 400,000 is well equipped and ready to fight—and of these, only half, or 50,000 men, is really reliable. Twice that number is demonstrating each week. So far, the regime has been lucky in that the uprisings have been sequential, moving from one place to the next. If the protesters rose up at once, the regime could lose control. That is beginning to happen.

So what next? One possibility is that the regime might change course and try to reform. It has made a number of promises to protesters, such as new laws on political parties, elections in August and a reduction of the privileged status of the ruling Baath party. It has called a “national dialogue summit” for mid-July to talk about these. But such promises sound insincere. It is not clear who might attend the summit (the opposition says the crackdown must stop first). The president has been talking about political reform for a decade. Given the bloodshed, his promises would almost certainly be too little, too late—even if they were fulfilled, which they may not be. The regime seems incapable of opening up. Amnesties are followed by waves of arrests. The president’s cult of personality has grown since the protests started. Reform would anger the security services, his only loyal allies. “They are playing for time and trying to take the wind out of the demonstrations,” says one observer in Damascus. But “the system cannot be reformed,” says a former top official, bluntly.

So might the regime go the other way, attempting harsher crackdowns and targeting churches and mosques—perhaps through proxies—to divide and rule the sects? A growing number of citizens are arming themselves. Future tussles with the security forces are likely to result in many more deaths. But a violent meltdown is not inevitable. The Alawites seem unlikely to start a civil war. They are a small minority and would probably withdraw to their mountain redoubt if under existential threat. They might seek to provoke communal or religious clashes. But Syria has seen no big communal clash since 1862, when Muslims burned down Christian houses in Damascus. You might think that Syria could see an Islamist takeover. But, when the Muslim Brotherhood was a legitimate political party in the 1950s, it got only 3-6% of parliamentary seats. Even government insiders—with an interest in playing up the threat—estimate that the brothers would get at most 15% today.

Perhaps the regime could try to start a regional war to distract from problems at home? It could attack Israel directly or via its ally Hizbullah in Lebanon. It could ask for more Iranian support than it already gets, even at the risk of drawing in Saudi Arabia on the side of the opposition. The region’s main faultlines would then be starkly exposed: Arabs v Persians, Jews against the rest. But the Middle East is always full of such talk. It rarely amounts to much (though when it does the consequences are terrible). Iran, Israel, Hizbullah and Saudi Arabia all stand to lose a great deal from an all-out conflict in Syria. The Assad regime has long seen its backing for the Palestinian cause as a source of prestige at home and in the region. But among other Arabs (including many Palestinians), the Syrian regime is coming to be seen as toxic, not just for its brutality but for what many think has been its cynical manipulation of the Palestinian issue.

Lastly, might the Syrian regime split or change from within? Sunni officers staged three coups in quick succession after independence in 1946. The chances of that happening again are small. Among the Assads, Bashar’s is the most acceptable public face. There seems little mileage in ditching him. The Assads have been anticipating coups for 40 years and have cleverly compartmentalised the security forces.

So perhaps the best outcome would be some form of negotiated transition under international auspices. Turkey, a one-time ally of the Assads, is working on a deal that would save the family face and give the Sunnis more power. Ahmet Davutoglu, its foreign minister, is due to visit Syria soon. Russia, which has a naval base near Tartus, is also taking a keen interest. A bargain could be struck if (when?) the regime loses control over parts of the country. Protesters might take over one or more cities like Hama. Some villages and valleys are already barricading themselves in.

A Syrian denouement may not yet be imminent but the regime is tottering. The extraordinary endurance of demonstrators week after week is paying off. Patience has been the key to many challenges to the ancient thrones of Damascus. On a visit 150 years ago Mark Twain wrote wryly of the three-millennia-old city: “She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”

The Economist