The Revolution Stops Here

How Syria's Bashar Assad is bucking the trend in the Middle East

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UPI / Landov

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addresses parliament in Damascus on March 30, 2011

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 (the Alawi sect of Shi'ite Islam) represents less than 15% of the total population of just over 22 million.

On the other hand, Syria under the Assad family remains tightly controlled. There are multiple security organs run by trusted Alawis. There is also a legacy of brutality against internal opponents. In 1982, then President Hafez Assad — the father of the current President, Bashar Assad — ordered the massacre of an estimated 20,000 in the city of Hama after the Muslim Brotherhood seized control there.

I came to know the father two decades ago, when I was the senior Middle East hand on the National Security Council staff. A meeting with Hafez was something of an ordeal; one had to withstand lectures on the Crusades that stretched for hours, without a bathroom break, lest one appear weak. (Like other American diplomats, I quickly learned to avoid drinking the tea.) He was an unsentimental pragmatist. In 1990, after the invasion of Kuwait, he joined the coalition against Saddam Hussein, and a year later, he was the first leader from the region to accept the U.S. invitation to attend the Middle East peace conference in Madrid. He did all this not because he loved either peace or America but to make sure Hussein could not dominate the region and to curry favor with the U.S., which, he calculated, would be highly influential in the aftermath of the Cold War.

His son Bashar is in many ways an accidental autocrat. It was his brother Basil who was being groomed for the job; Bashar went off to become an eye doctor in London. When Basil was killed in a car accident in 1994, the young eye doctor found himself thrust into politics. He inherited his father's position in 2000, portraying himself as a reformer but failing to deliver. Some Syria watchers were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, arguing that he would bring reforms as soon as he had consolidated his position vis-à-vis the old guard that had surrounded his father and now constrained him. They cited Bashar's interview in late January of this year with the Wall Street Journal in which he hinted at gradual political reform. But his people got tired of waiting. Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, activists took to the streets in several cities in mid-March. There were violent clashes between demonstrators and police. Around 100 Syrians, mostly young people, lost their lives.

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

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2011 issue of TIME.