Syrian demonstrations: what do they mean?

Successive days of popular demonstrations in Syria on 15th and 16th March have surprised many in the media and the blogosphere. Despite experiencing many similar conditions to Arab states that have witnessed unrest in recent months, such as high unemployment, corruption and dictatorial government, Syria has remained calm and stood out as somehow immune to unrest until now. President Assad himself commented in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last month that there would be no Egypt-style demonstrations in his country due to his more populist, anti-Israel foreign policy. Many analysts, including myself, highlighted that the reasons behind Syria’s comparative calm were more complex than this, including Assad’s own personal popularity, the guaranteed loyalty of his army and Syria’s potentially combustible ethnic mix, but agreed that all things considered Syria was a less likely Arab ‘domino’ to fall in the immediate future than other candidates.

So do this week’s demonstrations change this? There remains a degree of uncertainty and confusion about who the demonstrators were and what they wanted. The events were triggered primarily by a Facebook campaign, ‘Syria Revolution 2011’, organised several weeks in advance for public demonstrations nation-wide on 15th March. The international media were conspicuously quiet about the events, allegedly hushed by threats from the regime, though also probably more distracted by the more dramatic scenes in Libya, Bahrain and Japan. In the absence of decent sources, a lot of tweeters and facebookers have been quoted with seemingly inflated figures of as many as 1,000 protestors in central Damascus and even more in Aleppo, Deir Ez-Zour, Hama and elsewhere. Until we get confirmation from independent sources on those events, it is hard to draw firm conclusions.

YouTube videos appeared on the 15th showing around 100-200 people in Souq Hamidiya marching. The people are shouting ‘Syria, God, Freedom and nothing more’ – a clever inversion of a pro-regime slogan, ‘Syria, God, Bashar and nothing more.’ Other slogans, from what I can hear, were ‘peaceful, peaceful,’ and ‘freedom, freedom’. Apparently this gathering was soon infiltrated by pro-regime figures that started singing pro-regime chants and beat up a few of the protestors. The BBC reports that 6 protestors were detained. On the next day, Human Rights Watch, a usually reliable source, claimed that around 150 people marched from the Ministry of the Interior into Merjeh Square primarily to protest the detention of their relatives. HRW claim that 18 people were detained, though Abdel Karim Rihawi, president of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights put this number at 34.

What do they want?

A few observations come to mind on these protests. Firstly, the number of protestors matters. These were both small protests. They had between 100-300 maximum taking part and the leading figures, such as Suheir al-Attassi and Mazen Darwich, noble though their goals are, are part of the ‘usual’ opposition voices, and hardly represent a new force in Syrian politics. Despite weeks of organising on facebook they were not able to attract any mass support, just a committed few and, in the case of the relatives of detainees on 16th March, those with a personal stake in the protest. Moreover, unlike a similar looking but quite different protest in Damascus in February against police brutality, these were not spontaneous but previously organised and, crucially, monitored and expected by the security services. That said, and this is a point missed by the international media to a point, even a small number protesting in Syria is a big deal. Under the emergency law that has been in place since 1963, any gatherings of more than 3 people are theoretically illegal. The protestors on both days, by bravely facing down the threat of detention or a beating, were trying to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to the regime. The logic, no doubt, is to open political space and create a de facto situation whereby the regime will have to quash repeated peaceful demonstrations (meaning bad PR and international condemnation) or lift restrictions.

A second observation is that the aim of these protestors remains ambiguous. Though many Syrians in exile and opposition figures used twitter and facebook to emphasise the anti-regime nature of the protests, in reality they were not so blatant. While those who took part in solidarity demonstrations outside Syria’s embassies in Cairo and other capitals chanted anti-regime slogans, within Syria they were more nuanced. On the 16th they called for the release of their relatives, and on the 15th they dared to substitute Bashar’s name from a regime slogan for freedom, but nothing more. Whilst these are in themselves significant forms of defiance, it is a step too far to describe these as calls for the overthrow of the regime as in Tunisia and Egypt, whatever Syrian-exiles and anti-Syria western commentators may hope. The protestors clearly recognise that they need to crawl before they can walk and presented some achievable reforms for the regime, such as lifting the state of emergency and freeing political prisoners, rather than whole scale revolution. Indeed, it could be argued that the hostility of the Facebook campaigns, calling for ‘days of rage’ and ‘revolution’ actually scare off many ordinary Syrians, who might reasonably be expected to support gradual reforms, but fear the impact of sudden and widespread upheaval.

What does this mean?

So what is the significance of these protests, brave but limited though they were? What happens next is important. In terms of the protestors themselves, they have shown their hand (and faces) and many of the leaders could find themselves facing jail terms or sporadic detention that, like other Syrian democratic figures before them, could limit their ability to organise. A key question will therefore be how much these demonstrations have inspired others to take up the baton and continue the struggle. Syria actually has a few important dates coming up that a well-supported protest movement should be able to exploit. This Friday after prayers would be an obvious place to start. After that, on 1st April, key fuel subsidies are due to be cut which will make life harder for ordinary Syrians and are an unpopular move by the government. After that, in mid-April, local elections, dominated by the Ba’ath, are due. If the movement cannot generate enough support on these occasions (or, at least people willing to publicly support them), it is likely that the opposition at this stage will lack momentum to have any real impact.

The other key question, indeed the key question, is how the regime reacts. Though the numbers are small, this is embarrassing to Bashar and his government, especially since he boasted in the WSJ that no such thing would happen. Moreover, this was not some remote province rising up as in 2004, this was in downtown Damascus where tourists shop for souvenirs in Hamidiya and Merjeh. Not surprisingly the immediate reaction was to pretend it wasn’t happening, followed shortly by blaming it on Israeli agents. While the numbers stay small, this may just about work as a strategy, alongside arresting and intimidating the leaders. However, there is a fine balance to strike. As seen in Egypt and Tunisia, and now Bahrain, sending in security forces heavy and hard can galvanise support, something the regime does not want. The alternative would be to do what king Abdullah II did in Jordan, which was to act quickly and offer a concession before the protests swell. Bashar could do this quite easily and nip the protests in the bud before they escalate. However, this does not seem to be the slow-moving and bureaucratic regime’s style and they won’t want to give the impression that protests get results. Instead they will want to stick to their own timetable of ‘reform’.

To conclude then, despite wishful thinking outside of Syria these two protests do not represent a threat to the Ba’ath regime right now. What they do represent is an attempt to push open the boundaries political space in Syria that could later be filled by more serious opposition with mass support in the future. Whether that is weeks, months or years away depends a lot on how the regime responds in the medium term, with heavy-handed oppression, reform or, most likely, some attempt at combining the two.


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