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The potential of a reformed Syria

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28 March 2011 16:06

The unrest in each of the Arab countries over the last few months has been notable for different reasons.

Tunisia heralded the current round of political unrest elsewhere and showed what popular demonstrations could achieve. Egypt has the potential to act as an example to other countries if it gets the peaceful transition to democracy right. Libya has brought western military action under the concept of R2P in an Arab country for the first time, and Bahrain because it showed that religious bigotry sets limits on the tolerance for political reform in the Arab world.

Syria is the latest country to face popular protest, and the outcome here has the potential to provide greater strategic benefits than any of the other uprisings.

Up to now, Bashar Assad has continued to play the role of regional 'spoiler', content in the belief that his rule was secure. In an interview two months ago, he said that Syria was immune from the problems besetting Egypt because he understood his people's needs.

Now, with persistent and deadly demonstrations in the south spreading to the coastal city of Latakia, his regime is under pressure internally and he has been making concessions. These range from releasing political prisoners and raising public sector wages to his latest offer, repealing the decades-old emergency laws. 

A reformed Syria, open to serious engagement with, and economic and technical assistance from, the West (at the expense of its friendship with Iran) offers great geostrategic advantages. A break with Iran would stymie Tehran's attempts at regional influence and over time, strangle Hizbullah's weapons resupply routes, potentially making that group more willing to undertake serious disarmament dialogue with other Lebanese political parties.

A more engaged Syria may even be willing to provide information about the weapons proliferation networks that allowed it to commence an alleged nuclear enrichment program. And the final and most alluring of possibilities, is a Syria committed to undertake serious discussions about the future of Sheba' Farms and the Golan Heights with Israel. 

Unfortunately, while those possibilities are enormously exciting, they are unlikely to come to pass. Damascus is likely to survive this current bout of violence and unrest for a number of reasons. First, although reporting is sketchy, there does not seem to be a critical mass of protestors around the country — the large economic centres of Damascus and Aleppo have been relatively untouched by anti-government demonstrations and life goes on normally.

This reflects the protestors' lack of a unified leadership, the competing agendas of Syrian opposition figures currently in exile overseas and the unwillingness of much of the Syrian merchant class to sacrifice stability for political participation.

Second, the minority 'Allawite community (of which the Assad family is a member) is the backbone of the security forces and they are committed to maintaining the status quo, fearing the day in which the 'Allawites are no longer in a position of strength. Finally, there is no regional support for regime change — even though the Assad regime is by no means universally liked, it is a known quantity and popular uprisings as the vehicle for political change make other autocrats extremely nervous.

Assad is using the classic carrot and stick approach at the moment — the interest for the immediate future is the amount of carrot he is willing to offer and the amount of stick that the West is willing to accept.

Photo by Flickr user sampsyo.

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