Protests Planned in Syria, As Assad Expresses Confidence in His Country’s ‘Stability’

By Patrick Goodenough | February 1, 2011 | 4:52 AM EST

The Obama administration is seeking better ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad, seen here with visiting U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell in Damascus on July 26, 2009. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

( – Online appeals for large-scale demonstrations in Syria this weekend are prompting speculation that President Bashir Assad’s regime could be next target of anti-regime sentiment sweeping the region.

A number of Facebook and Twitter pages have been created, calling for a “day of rage” against the government on February 5, some of them boasting several thousand apparent supporters.

According to translations provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the pages are calling on Syrians to hold non-violent protests across the country and at Syrian diplomatic missions in Arab and European capitals.

It says organizers of planned demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, have listed demands including an improvement in living standards and respect for human rights and free speech. One of the pages is entitled “Syrian revolution 2011” and some carry doctored, unflattering pictures of the president.

MEMRI also cited a Syrian media report saying that Assad’s security chief had met with provincial governors and police commanders to prepare for possible protests.

The Assad family, members of the minority Alawite sect which is regarded as apostate by the majority Sunni population, has ruled Syria with a firm grip since 1971 when Bashir Assad’s father, Hafez, seized power in a purge of the ruling socialist Baath party.

Syrian President Bashir Assad meets with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus in February 2010. (Photo: Hezbollah/Moqawama Web site)

The younger Assad assumed control on his father’s death in 2000. Despite pledges to liberalize he continues to restrict civil liberties and hold onto power by force, while strengthening ties with Iran and Hezbollah and hosting “rejectionist” Palestinian terrorist groups in Damascus.

The Obama administration is seeking improved relations with Syria, and sent a new ambassador to Damascus last month almost six years after ties were frozen following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a car bombing widely blamed on Syria.

Assad’s most recent mandate came from an uncontested 2007 referendum, in which he was declared to have won 97 percent of the vote. (Egypt’s embattled President Hosni Mubarak won similar referendums four times during the 1980s and 1990s, before winning one purportedly multi-candidate election in 2005.)

Amid anti-incumbent protests in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere following the Tunisia uprising, some opponents of the Assad regime are hopeful their country may be next.

“Syrians are burning the midnight oil at Facebook,” the exiled Reform Party of Syria (RPS) said on its Web site at the weekend. “Hundreds of Syrian pages, if not thousands, are continuously supplying news, rendering opinions, delivering heated nationalist speeches, and posting mocking pictures of Assad.’

“Since the Tunis uprising, we have witnessed many activists use Facebook to express freely their opinions about the how oppressive the Assad regime is,” the RPS said. “After Egypt, Syria will never be the same either.”

Reforms, repression

Assad argues that his ideological positions relating to the United States and Israel place him closer to mainstream Syrian opinion than is the case in countries like Egypt.

He suggested in an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week that, because of this, Syrians were not inclined to “to go into an uprising” despite economic problems.

An image of a protest page on Facebook calling for “revolution” in Syria.

“We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people,” he said.

“When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas.”

Despite that expressed confidence, Assad at the same time did say he was working on introducing modest reforms, including making elections for local government “more democratic [and] more efficient,” opening up space for non-governmental organizations to operate, and having “a new look for the media.”

Asked for the administration’s response to Assad’s comments about reform, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley pointed to comments Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made during a visit to Qatar last month about the need for reform across the Middle East and North Africa.

“The people in the region are looking at what happened in Tunisia; they’re looking at what’s happening in Egypt,” he said. “They have aspirations, they have talents, they have capabilities. The region as a whole, when you look at the political, social, economic well-being of these people, it has underperformed.”

In 2005, opposition figures and groups in Syria signed the “Damascus Declaration,” calling for “peaceful political reform based on dialogue,” an end to four decade-old emergency laws and the release of political prisoners.

Twelve signatories were later found guilty of “weakening patriotic spirit by spreading false news” and sentenced to jail terms ranging from three to six years.

Those supporting the initiative included nationalist and Kurdish groups, as well as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whose leaders are in exile.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned in Syria since 1982, when Hafez Assad in 1982 crushed an Islamist revolt in the town of Hama, a stronghold of the organization. The massive military operation cost the lives of an estimated 10,000-25,000 people, including civilians.

The Syrian MB leader, Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa, was quoted last month by the Egyptian MB’s media mouthpiece as saying the group was seeking reconciliation with the Assad regime.

“If we are allowed to go back to Syria, we will devote ourselves to preaching and religious activities only,” al-Shaqfa was quoted as saying.

‘Excited about regime change’

In contrast to the view that Damascus is alarmed by events in Egypt, Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, believes that the Syrian authorities are pleased about them, having hoped to see the collapse of the regime in Cairo ever since Egypt made peace with Israel three decades ago.

Syria bitterly opposed the Camp David peace agreement accusing President Anwar Sadat of selling out the Arab and Palestinian cause. Assad senior severed diplomatic relations and supported sanctions against Egypt.

According to Landis, the peace agreement came at Syria’s expense as it allowed Israel to disregard the Syrian peace track.

“Syrian authorities are excited by the prospect of regime change in Egypt,” he said in respose to queries on Tuesday.

“In terms of geopolitics, the collapse of American allies in the region holds out many opportunities for Syria and the promise of improved prospects that Israel will take a new look at renewing peace talks with Israel.”

At the same time, the Syrian leadership does fear the possible spill-over effect, he said, noting that Syria suffered from a lack of political freedom and many of the same economic difficulties facing Egypt and Tunisia.

“The hard truth is that Syria has a rapidly growing population,, too little water and world food prices that are going up rapidly,” Landis said.

“Assad is promising speedier reforms, making him one of the first Middle East leaders to say, ‘I hear you,’ to the people. But there is way to know if they will actually happen. He has promised political reforms in the past.”

Landis also said that Syrians were much less likely to risk instability than Tunisians or Egyptians.

“The Iraq example has traumatized Syrians,” he said. “They host almost one million Iraqi refuges, which has sent a cautionary lesson about what can happen when a regime collapses in a divided society.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow