Syria military's loyalty to Assad seen as airtight

AP News
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Posted: Apr 06, 2011 1:13 PM
Syria military's loyalty to Assad seen as airtight

Unlike the armies of Tunisia and Egypt, Syria's military will almost certainly stand by the country's leader as President Bashar Assad faces down an extraordinary protest movement.

Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect over the past 40 years, ensuring the loyalty of the armed forces by melding the fate of the army and the regime.

The power structure means there could be darker days ahead in Syria if the struggle for reform gathers steam. Analysts say the army would likely use force to protect the regime at all costs, for fear they will be persecuted if the country's Sunni majority gains the upper hand.

"If there is going to be a change in Syria, it is going to be a bloody change," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "Assad has the army, the intelligence and security agencies. These are strong agencies and they are specialized in internal oppression."

The uprising in Syria is one of the more astonishing in the region, given that the Assad family has kept an iron grip on power for 40 years, in part by crushing every whisper of dissent. But more importantly, they filled the country's most vital posts with Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam that represents only about 11 percent of the population. Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

At least 80 people have been killed as security forces cracked down on three weeks of demonstrations that echo the uprisings spreading across the Arab world. In Egypt and Tunisia, the armies sided with demonstrators seeking to overthrow their entrenched leaders and provided the fatal blow each time.

However, Syrian protesters cannot count on such support. Nevertheless, activists have called for protests to continue this week to honor the "martyrs" who have died.

Human rights activists already have criticized the security forces' response to the protests. Human Rights Watch says the regime is using "unjustified lethal force against anti-government protesters."

"For three weeks, Syria's security forces have been firing on largely peaceful protesters in various parts of Syria," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of investigating those responsible for shootings, Syria's officials try to deflect responsibility by accusing unknown 'armed groups.'"

The unrest in Syria, which exploded nationwide nearly three weeks ago, is a new and highly unpredictable element of the Arab Spring, one that could both weaken a major Arab foe of the West and cause dangerous instability in one of the more fragile and potentially chaotic countries of the Mideast. The unrest could have implications well beyond Syria's borders, given the country's role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

Regime change in Syria would inevitably mean far greater powers for the Sunni majority _ a concern for the country's closest ally, Shiite power Iran.

The protests began in Daraa, an agricultural city of about 300,000 near the border with Jordan, after security forces arrested a group of high school students who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall _ apparently inspired by the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world.

The region is parched and impoverished, suffering sustained economic problems from a yearslong drought.

The demonstrations have brought Syria's sectarian tensions into the open for the first time in decades _ a taboo subject because of the Assad family's dynasty of minority rule. Assad's father, Hafez, crushed a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist uprising in Hama in 1982, shelling the town and killing tens of thousands in a massacre that still terrifies Syrians.

Although the three weeks of protests are unprecedented in Syria _ one of the most tightly controlled countries in the Middle East _ some believe memories of Hama could dampen long-term enthusiasm for open dissent.

"The Hama experience is in the minds and souls of Syrians," Khashan said. "We are seeing every week small and limited demonstrations in Syria, but they are continuing. Demands for change are not stopping although they are small. There is fear because the oppressive regime has taught them and it in the minds of the Syrians the oppressive state is ready to do anything in order to stay in power."

The strength of the protest movement is difficult to gauge because Syria has expelled and detained journalists and made sweeping arrests. Fear of detention is omnipresent in Syrians' minds _ the country's widely despised emergency law, in place for decades, gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.

Besides the campaign of intimidation, fear of sectarian warfare is a serious deterrent to dissent _ and not only because of the devastation in Hama. Syria is home to more than 1 million refugees from neighboring Iraq, who serve as a clear testament to the dangers of regime collapse and fracture in a religiously divided society. They also see the seemingly intractable sectarian tensions in Lebanon as a cautionary tale for their own lives.

Assad has been playing on those fears of sectarian warfare as he works to quell any popular support for the uprising.

He has blamed the unrest on a foreign plot to sow sectarian strife _ a claim that echoes pronouncements from almost every other besieged leader in the region.

But many say Assad is simply brushing aside real cries for reform.

"It is unlikely that external conspirators are so skilled at multitasking that they can foment citizen rebellions simultaneously in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria," Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, said in a recent editorial in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper.

Assad has made some gestures toward reform by sacking his Cabinet and promising to set up committees to look into replacing the emergency law.

On Wednesday, he closed the country's only casino and reversed a decision that bans teachers from wearing the Islamic veil, moves seen an attempt to appease religious conservatives in the Sunni majority.

Wednesday's decisions were unusual concessions to religious concerns in Syria, which promotes a strictly secular identity _ something that analysts say is integral to keeping the country's simmering sectarian tensions at bay.