Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based Islamic scholar, recently preached that the “train of the Arab revolution” had arrived in Syria. Syria could well be ripe for upheaval. Like Egypt and Libya, it has been run by a single family, one that lacks the legitimacy of a bona fide monarchy, for 40 years. And like Bahrain, Syria is ruled by a minority: its controlling elite
Bashar had two choices: he could choose reform, making concessions to co-opt the protesters, or he could choose physical repression. His televised speech on March 30 was a disappointment. Contrary to expectations, he did not repeal the 1963 emergency law that grants the government extraordinary powers to limit dissent. He attributed the protests to an anti-Syrian external conspiracy. There were no political changes.
So for now at least, Bashar appears to have opted for a crackdown over change. He may get away with it. Governments tend to keep power if they remain unified and can call on security forces to quell resistance. Bashar enjoys the support not only of his fellow Alawis but also of many of the country’s majority Sunnis, who welcome continued Assad rule because it promises stability and a secular society. Or, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian regime may prove more brittle than we know.
Either way, outsiders, including the U.S., will have little influence over Syria’s future. They can and should call for meaningful political change and increased sanctions, but this regime is strong and tenacious. Libya is not a model: a no-fly zone would be irrelevant, expanded sanctions would receive little international support, and Arab backing for regime change would be close to nonexistent. Interestingly, Israel may not want regime change in Damascus either. The two countries are sworn enemies, and Syria is close to Israel’s deadliest foes: Hizballah, Hamas and Iran. But for all that, the border between the two countries remains mostly quiet. While Israelis would welcome a European-style democracy for a neighbor, they fear Bashar would more likely be succeeded by radical Islamists. As they say in Tel Aviv, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations
See pictures of protest in Syria.
See the 2011 TIME 100 Poll.