Dictatorships are never more vulnerable than when they first try to reform. By that rule of thumb, Syria may be on the brink of a political transformation that could redraw the face of the Middle East.
Bashar al-Assad is said to be poised to announce sweeping reforms in a bid to end two weeks of political unrest.
Sources close to the Syrian President said Monday he is considering lifting restrictions that have held Syria in a vise-like state of emergency since 1963.
Facing his deepest crisis in 11 years in power, Mr. Assad is said to be contemplating ending the Baath party’s political monopoly, loosening media controls, ending the state of emergency and launching campaigns to fight corruption and increase public servants’ pay.
According to the official SANA news agency, Farouq al-Shara, the Syrian Vice-President, said Mr. Assad will give a speech in the next two days that will “assure the people.”
But Mr. Assad has promised reforms before and failed to deliver. When the 45-year-old inherited power from his father in 2000, he offered vague hints of reforms, but continued the bloody repression that characterized 30 years of Hafez Assad’s rule.
Monday’s promise of pending reforms also came as security services tried to tighten their grip on the country, putting thousands of troops onto the streets of Daraa, in an effort to end 13 days of street demonstrations in which more than 65 people have died.
Despite the clampdown, security forces clashed with 4,000 demonstrators in the city, using tear gas to disperse those who reassembled once the air cleared.
The demonstrations now sweeping Syria began in Daraa on March 15 after security forces arrested 15 children for spray-painting the words “The People Want the Fall of the Regime” on their school.
That touched off protests in the city, during which police snipers opened fire on the crowds, killing dozens.
The unrest spread to the capital Damascus, as well as the cities of Homs, Hama, Aleppo, al-Riqqa and Latakia, where at least 12 people were killed over the weekend.
That violence has the potential to alter the Middle East because Syria, which borders Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, is a geographic and political pivot in the region.
Syria’s collapse into Libyastyle chaos would unsettle the entire region. If Mr. Assad is driven from power, his downfall will shift the balance of power.
“There are only two options,” warns a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change. The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end.”
If he runs true to form, Mr. Assad will rely on the latter.
In Syria, there is none of the inevitable sense of hope that filled Egypt’s Tahrir Square or the shocked sense of indignation that came with the first civilian deaths in Libya.
Mr. Assad’s regime is already drenched in blood. For decades it has been ranked among the region’s most repressive.
Hafez Assad crushed a Sunni revolt in the north central city of Hama in 1982 by killing more than 25,000 civilians, using tanks and artillery to level entire neighbourhoods in Syria’s fourth-largest city.
Now, a United Nations special tribunal is said to be poised to blame Syria, along with Hezbollah, for the 2005 car bomb murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri.
Syria has also become the major entry point for the Islamist jihadists from around the world who turned Iraq into a charnel house after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
The government also shelters the leaders of Hamas and other violent Palestinian terror groups and serves as the chief arms supplier for Hezbollah.
There is nothing inevitable about the Arab world’s march toward democracy, even if the same ingredients that brought down Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt can be found in Syria.
Repression, corruption, family rule and fear are all present. But so, too, is a ruthless determination to cling to power at any cost.
Peter Goodspeed, National Post