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reflections

Apr 20, 2011 | 05:56 GMT

4 mins read

Syria's Trajectory in the Wake of Unrest

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The Syrian Cabinet on Tuesday approved a bill to repeal an emergency law in place since 1963, when the country's ruling Baath Party came to power. The move followed weeks of popular demonstrations that started as early as Feb. 4 and have since spread across the country. The state security court was abolished, as well. Damascus also made it compulsory for anyone seeking to stage protest rallies to gain prior permission from the Interior Ministry. These legal changes notwithstanding, Syria's rulers continue to rely on the use of force as their main tool in their effort to calm things down. They hope to prevent the unrest from reaching critical mass through intimidation. The use of force may bear fruit in the days ahead, but thus far, it has not produced the desired results. The Syrians cannot embark on genuine reforms and then hope to retain their hold on power, given the country's complex and rather unique political system. That said, at this stage, the regime is not in any imminent danger of collapse. But if the protests cannot be subdued, questions will emerge about future stability of one of the most important countries in the Middle East. If Damascus cannot suppress the risings through the use of force, the regime is unlikely to be able to offer concessions and hope to survive. Clearly, the removal of emergency law and the state security court was largely a cosmetic change, part of an effort to quell the civil disturbances in the country, without having to engage in any real reforms. It can be argued that given its nature, the Syrian state is incapable of reform. One of the few really totalitarian polities in the region, the Syrians cannot embark on genuine reforms and then hope to retain their hold on power given the country's complex and unusual political system. The country has been under single-party rule for nearly 48 years of its 65-year existence as an independent nation-state. In turn, the Baath Party at least since the late 1960s has been dominated by the minority Alawite sect (which comprises some 15 percent of the country's population). And since 1970, when Hafez al Assad (the father of the current president) became the leader of the country, power has been concentrated in the hands of the al Assad clan. Ironically, this multilayered setup has maintained stability within the country after a series of coups and countercoups that wracked the Levantine Arab state in its nascent years. In other words, Syria as we know it has not seen any other political order. In sharp contrast to Egypt, where the military was the locus of power and the ruling parties its tools, the al Assad-Alawite-Baathist setup has permeated the military and the wider security establishment. These three groups constitute concentric circles that make up the indispensable components of the Syrian regime. Furthermore, the Syrian republic has crushed any competing political forces. This means that in the event that the regime is unable to contain unrest, there are no alternative forces that can step in and take over. Being a security state, the most robust institution is the military and the intelligence apparatus — which are unlikely to go against the ruling clique given their unique configuration. In comparison, Yemen, which is also undergoing state meltdown, has forces that could come together and fill the void created by the collapse of the only president that country has known since 1978. Syria on the other hand is likely to experience far greater chaos and infighting along the lines of what we see in Libya should the regime fall.

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