Unrest in Syria has discomforted rather than shaken the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. It is an even bet that he will survive, which is preferable to any likely alternative. There are several reasons he will not end up like Ben Ali or Mubarak.
Bashar is popular with a large segment of the population, especially among the young, who account for more than half of Syria’s 24 million people, and who have taken advantage of his political and economic liberalization over the past decade. They see the termination of the decades-long state of emergency as a key symbolic step on Bashar’s reformist path. They would be loath to see their country degraded into something more akin to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The mass rallies (March 29) in support of Bashar all over Syria were orchestrated by the government, but hundreds of thousands of mainly young and visibly enthusiastic participants could hardly have been coerced into joining them.
The alternative to Bashar—a fundamentalist Sunni regime controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood—also strikes horror into the hearts of Alawites, Druze, Christians, and secularists of all hues, who provide the bulk of government cadres and the growing middle class. The dislike of a common enemy can be a powerful bond, and Syria’s assorted heterodox Muslims, secularists, and non-Muslim “infidels” know that they need to hang together with Bashar, or they are certain to hang separately—and rapidly disappear, just like Iraq’s previously stable and prosperous Christian community in the aftermath of the “Coalition’s” 2003 occupation.
Last but not least, the army and the internal-security apparatus are reliable and disciplined. The soldiers are loyal to Bashar, rather than to the army as an institution (like in Egypt) or to whoever appears to be winning in the streets (like in Tunisia). They overreacted by opening fire at Daraa, but in Homs and Latakia, the deaths were primarily the result of mob violence and vandalism instigated by Muslims who treat “martyrdom” as an essential element of their destabilization strategy.
The standard chant of Assad’s opponents, “Allah, Freedom, Syria—That’s All,” indicates their priorities. Far from being latter-day Jeffersonians, they demand “freedom” from a modernizing, secularist government that has successfully kept political Islam on a tight leash for some decades now. A symbol of that government is Bashar Al-Assad’s senior political advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, an articulate, multilingual woman in Western dress and an uncovered head who has announced a series of reforms in advance of next summer’s elections. Political parties, even those opposed to the ruling Ba’ath, would be legalized, and the media granted greater freedom than that enjoyed in most of the Arab world. If Bashar reneges on the promise, it will be apparent soon enough. “Syrians have two roads to choose from—both being calculated gambles,” Syria’s leading author and commentator Sami Moubayed wrote on March 28. “In the first, they would be betting on Al Assad . . . and it requires giving him the benefit of the doubt. The second path would be betting on the unknown—a street movement that doesn’t have a clear command, vision, or agenda . . . I would take the first option and encourage others to do so.”
Some foreign proponents of Bashar’s downfall use the standard rhetoric of “democratic” regime change but do not give a hoot for what “the people” actually want or for the optimal outcome for the region’s long-term stability. They want to see him replaced by a hard-core Islamist regime in order to ensure that Syria becomes and stays weak and divided. Caroline Glick thus argued in the Jerusalem Post that “it is far from clear that it would be worse for Syria to be led by the Brotherhood than by Assad. What would a Muslim Brotherhood regime do that Assad isn’t already doing? At a minimum, a successor regime will be weaker than the current one. Consequently, even if Syria is taken over by jihadists, they will pose less of an immediate threat to the region than Assad. They will be much more vulnerable to domestic opposition and subversion.”
This is a remarkably shortsighted view. Bashar is not a threat to the region, “immediate” or otherwise. A Muslim Brotherhood regime would do all sorts of bad or unpleasant things that he isn’t doing. Bashar and his father have kept perfect peace on the Golan Heights for almost 40 years. An Islamist Syria would be unlikely to follow suit; its cue would come from the Hamas-ruled Gaza, Kassam rockets and all. An Islamist Syria would become a stronger link in the Iran-Hezbollah axis than Assad has ever been.
An Islamist Syria—unlike Assad’s—would likely be terrorist-friendly. In the aftermath of September 11 Damascus passed on to the United States hundreds of files on Al Qaeda and other anti-Western terrorist individuals and movements in the Middle East, many of which targeted American allies in the region besides the United States. In an interview with the New York Times in 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said Syrian officials “gave me some information with respect to financial activities [of insurgents in Iraq] and how we can cooperate more fully on that.” It is unimaginable that a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Damascus would act likewise.
Over the past decade of Bashar’s rule the Syrians have signaled repeatedly that they are ready for a dialogue with Washington that may entail significant Syrian concessions. They have hinted at a peace treaty with Israel that may allow the Israelis to keep some parts of Golan on a long-term lease. Bashar’s present connection with Iran is neither natural nor inevitable. He is a secularist, whereas Ahmadinejad is a millenarian Islamic visionary. Bashar may be ready for all kinds of deals in return for Washington’s recognition of the legitimacy of his regime. He should be tested. The road to Damascus cannot and should not lead through Mecca.