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Apr 7, 2011 | 20:44 GMT

11 mins read

Syria Juggles Internal, External Pressures

Planned protests in Syria against the minority Baathist-Alawite regime of President Bashar al Assad largely failed to materialize April 7. This relative lull has come after two weeks of increasingly forceful crackdowns by the regime along with concessions designed to appease certain segments of the population. However, while al Assad is showing signs he will be able to ride out this political crisis, his problems are far from over. Damascus must still contend with the fact that its internal crisis has opened itself up to exploitation by outside powers.
Syrian anti-government protesters had called for a new round of demonstrations April 7, the 64th anniversary of the country's ruling Baath Party. Considering that more than a couple weeks beforehand, anti-regime protesters burned down party offices in the southwestern city of Daraa and the coastal city of Latakia, this day provided an ideal symbolic opportunity for another show of force. Instead, the Syrian regime made the show of force, massing security services in the streets in anticipation of protests that largely failed to materialize. The past couple weeks have been marked by increasingly forceful crackdowns and arrests designed to snuff out an uprising that derived its strength from the Sunni stronghold of Daraa, where a pattern of demonstrations, crackdowns and funeral processions had mobilized thousands of protesters in defiance of the minority Alawite-Baathist regime. Syria's pervasive security and intelligence apparatus appears to be having success in quelling the uprising. Whereas one week ago, the protests were spreading from Daraa and Damascus to Latakia (where a large number of Alawites are concentrated), Homs, Hama (the site of the 1982 massacre against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood,) and the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli, protests are now dwindling in both size and scope. Critically, the Syrian regime appears to have been successful in intimidating the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) into refraining from throwing its full weight behind the demonstrations.

Crackdowns and Reforms

Reluctantly, the Alawite-Baathist regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is coupling the crackdowns with some notable political reforms. Some of these moves are more cosmetic, such as the president's appointment of former Agriculture Minister Adel Safar to form a new Cabinet, the March 22 sacking of the Daraa governor and the April 7 sacking of the governor of Homs. Others sound promising but could end up meaning little in practice, such as reports from the Al Watan Daily of a commission charged with replacing Syria's emergency law with new draft legislation by April 8; even with revised legislation, the regime is unlikely to restrict its ability to suppress dissent by any significant degree. However, some reforms carry more weight, such as the April 5 reversal of a ban on teachers wearing the Islamic veil and the closure of Syria's only casino. These decisions are directed toward appeasing the country's conservative Sunni population, which has fueled much of the recent unrest. In addition, the April 6 move by the government to grant citizenship to people in the Kurdish-concentrated Al Hasaka region marks a significant departure in the regime's Kurdish policy. It remains to be seen how many Kurds will actually be given citizenship rights — the last census in Al Hasaka was done in 1962 and counted 150,000 Kurds as registered foreigners. However, this was a move pushed heavily by Turkey to avoid a spillover of Kurdish unrest into its own territory and one that Syria felt was worth the risk in the interest of containing unrest in its northeastern borderland. Though al Assad is showing strong signs of being able to ride out this political crisis, his regime's problems are far from over. Internally, the main threat to the Syrian government comes from heavily rural areas, such as Daraa in the southwest and Al Hasaka in the east, where the regime can be expected to focus both its reforms and crackdowns in the months ahead. Syrian state television's April 5 report of two Syrian policemen shot dead by "unidentified gunmen" in a rural area outside of the capital invoked memories of an insurrection launched in the late 1970s, when the Syrian MB carried out attacks against Syrian security targets in an effort to topple the regime and restore authority in the hands of Syria's Sunni majority. Details on the perpetrators of the April 5 incident are scarce, but such threats (whether real or staged) can be used by the regime to justify more forceful crackdowns as needed.

Impact on Syria's Foreign Relations

The al Assad regime was enabled to some extent by the fact that most of its foreign adversaries were not particularly fond of the idea of regime change in Damascus. Though the al Assad regime, and particularly its relationship with Iran, is troubling for many, the dismantling of the regime would be difficult and likely create more problems for Syria's neighbors in Israel and Turkey. Turkey does not want to see a spillover of Kurdish unrest or a conflict in Syria that could lead to another foreign military entanglement on its borders, while Israel is fearful that the toppling of al Assad could give way to Islamist political forces that may not be as restrained in conducting Syrian foreign policy. The United States, now engaged in three wars in the Islamic world, is also extremely reluctant to get involved in the Levant when it is already facing a much more critical dilemma in the Persian Gulf region. In fact, Washington made a point to draw a distinction — however ambiguously — between the humanitarian military intervention in Libya and the security situation in Syria. Moreover, none of these parties can be assured that a power vacuum resulting from the collapse of the regime would lead to civil war. While feeling far more secure at home now than it did a couple weeks ago, the Syrian regime must still contend with the fact that its internal crisis has opened itself up to exploitation by outside powers. Each is working to mold Syrian behavior to fit its respective agenda, but these powers are likely to be disappointed in their efforts as Damascus attempts to play all sides.


Syria's closest regional ally, Iran, has a strategic interest in maintaining a strong foothold in the Levant. This entails ensuring that Hezbollah remains prepared and willing to carry out actions on behalf of Iran should the need arise, that Syria remains cooperative in the alliance and supports Hezbollah's efforts and that Syria aids Iranian efforts to build up influence among Palestinian factions. Syria's interests cannot be expected to always perfectly align with those of Iran, however. Indeed, over the past year in particular, as Syria was rebuilding its confidence in Lebanon, tensions quietly simmered between Damascus and Tehran as the former sought to constrain Hezbollah's actions in Lebanon. Syria and Iran developed an understanding in which Syria would largely respect Iran's wishes for Hezbollah in Lebanon while Iran would respect Syria's wishes for Palestinian militant factions like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad when it came to threatening Israel. Both Hamas and PIJ have offices in Damascus, where their exiled leadership is based and from where funds for these groups are administered, providing the Syrian regime with considerable leverage in the Israeli-Palestinian theater. Now that Syria has experienced serious internal discord, Iran wants to take advantage of al Assad's vulnerability to shore up its alliance and thus strengthen its foothold in the Levant. The reported deployment of Hezbollah fighters and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members to Syria to help put down the unrest may be related to this aim, as Iran could show Syria that its assets can help the regime as much as they can hurt it should the Syrian president stray from its commitment to the alliance. Iran has also attempted to convince Syria that realigning itself with the U.S.-backed Sunni Arab bloc could prove dangerous, as the long-term interests of the Arab states would lie in bringing Syria's Sunni majority back to power to displace the minority Alawite regime. Iran is currently facing a historic opportunity in which it can (and has already tried) to take advantage of the regional uprisings to destabilize its Sunni Arab rivals in the Persian Gulf region at a time when the United States is attempting to complete a military withdrawal from Iraq. The potential for Iran to flare up a second front of hostilities, this time against Israel using Hamas and PIJ, surfaced more than two weeks ago, when a spate of Palestinian attacks against Israel appeared designed to provoke Israel into a military confrontation. Turkey moved quickly to pressure Syria into clamping down on Hamas and PIJ, resulting in a rapid drawdown in hostilities, but the potential for Iran to play the Palestinian card again remains — as evidenced by another increase in Gaza-based rocket attacks in the past couple days. This may explain why Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu paid a visit to Damascus on April 6 to meet with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in an apparent effort to keep the Israeli-Palestinian theater contained.

Saudi Arabia

On the other side of the divide is Saudi Arabia, which has long attempted to sway al Assad into severing relations with Iran and into joining the regional Arab consensus in preventing further Iranian encroachment in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia has relied on its most powerful weapon of choice, petrodollars, in an effort to induce Syrian cooperation in this regard. Saudi Arabia, in leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) campaign to counter Iran, announced April 6 that it would lend Syria 275 million riyals ($73.3 million) for the construction of a new power station in Deir al Zor to help Syria combat its growing electricity crisis. The GCC countries continue to advise al Assad that they are willing to help him overcome Syria's pressing financial difficulties, especially in paying for economic reforms and subsidies, as long as the Syrian regime makes the necessary, overt moves to distance itself from Iran. The Iranian-Saudi tug-of-war can be seen playing out in Lebanese domestic politics, as the Iranian-backed, Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition is battling with the Saudi-backed, Sunni-led March 14 coalition in trying to form a new government. The decision by Amal leader Nabih Berri, a Shiite leader in Lebanon who has a close relationship with the Syrian regime, to distance himself from the March 8 movement April 6 could indicate a move by Syria to politically weaken Hezbollah's coalition and thus prevent the group from asserting its authority over Lebanon's already fractured political system. Egypt is also doing its part to try to bring Syria into a regional Arab alliance to counter Iran, with the Egyptian military-led government working with Syria to influence the actions of Hamas and Fatah and keep Israeli-Palestinian tensions under control.


Turkey's intentions toward Syria are fairly straightforward: Ankara does not wish to see severe destabilization in Syria that could cause more problems for it at home, especially when it comes to the threat of Kurdish uprisings emboldening Turkey's Kurdish population in the lead-up to Turkey's June elections. Turkey's leadership has been working closely with Syria to manage the unrest, with Syria looking to Turkey, a NATO member, for its support in avoiding the Libyan treatment from Western military forces as it resorts to more forceful crackdowns. At the same time, Turkey has insisted on al Assad engaging in the necessary reforms to contain the crisis and allow supporters of the al Assad regime to save face. Turkey's dealings with Syria throughout this crisis are an illustration of Turkey's rising influence in the region. Turkey, for example, appeared to have played a role in getting Syria to clamp down on Hamas and PIJ when it looked like a concerted effort was under way more than two weeks ago to provoke Israel into a military confrontation. Like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Turkey has an interest in building a coalition of states that can act as a counterbalance to Iran. The al Assad regime may have reason to be wary of Turkey's long-term intentions for Syria, however. Though Turkey's current support for the regime is crucial, the ruling, Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party has an interest in seeing Islamist organizations like the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood gain the political space to operate. Rumors are circulating that a new version of the Syrian MB is taking shape with Turkish officials likely pushing Syria to open up the political system and allow for a legalized Islamist opposition. Turkey would likely give assurances to al Assad that it will use its influence to contain the opposition and that the regime will be more stable overall if it gives limited concessions to such opposition forces now to avoid further street demonstrations. That way, Turkey would not only have influence over the regime, but also the opposition in Syria to manage its next-door neighbor. It remains to be seen whether the al Assad regime actually takes the steps to allow for the legalization of an Islamist opposition party. The Turkish-Syrian relationship is likely to encounter significant bumps as Syria tries to balance between Iran and Iran's adversaries while trying to stave off long-term threats to its regime at home, but Turkey carries the political, military and economic weight to play an increasingly influential role in Damascus.

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