Deepening Divide

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To other Syria watchers, the question is not so much when the regime will fall but how. If the transition is managed — either through long-promised democratic reforms or some sort of internal coup that leads to elections — it could benefit the region. But if Syria is torn apart by the cycle of protests, crackdowns, resentment and brutality, it would rend the fabric of the Middle East. Outside powers can play only a limited role in shaping events, however. The U.S. and other Western nations have stiffened economic sanctions already in place against the regime, but they are not expected to weaken Assad's resolve. Military intervention is not an option: unlike Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Assad has a powerful backer in Iran. Syria's fate lies in the hands of its citizens — a daunting prospect for people who have lived under oppression for nearly five decades.

Regime Without Remorse
The protests against the assad government were inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrations drew from the Sunni majority as well as a Shi'ite minority known as the Alawites, which provides much of the country's ruling class. "It sounds like a cliché, I know," says Rami Nakhla, a Syrian cyberactivist working underground in Lebanon. "But we want what everyone in the region wants: an end to corruption, the ability to choose and dismiss our leaders, freedom of speech and freedom from fear."

The government's violent response to the initial protests was typical of a deeply entrenched regime that has consolidated power through terrorism, collective punishment, mass detentions and the oppression of intellectuals and politicians for the past 48 years. Formed in the postcolonial tumult that saw nearly a dozen coups in as many years, Syria — run for three decades by Hafiz Assad and for a fourth by his son Bashar — is built from a complex web of economic, social, tribal and marital interests. Alawites like the Assads control the main levers of power, including the military and security apparatus, but influential Sunni families get special business privileges, giving them a stake in the regime's survival.

At the center of the web sit multibranched intelligence and security services acutely attuned to any quivers of dissent. A brute intolerance of opposition has long been the regime's hallmark: when Islamists in the city of Hama rose in protest against the government in 1982, security forces shelled the town, killing anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 civilians. Since then, the Islamist movement has been all but obliterated, lending little credence to the idea that the regime is currently fighting a second Islamist uprising.

When Bashar Assad succeeded his father to the presidency in 2000, it was widely hoped that the soft-spoken, British-educated ophthalmologist would temper the security-state brutality and usher in economic and political reforms. He courted foreign investment, privatized state-owned utilities and introduced mobile phones and the Internet. But the economic changes also opened the door to corruption, largely benefiting the Alawites. And political reforms never materialized: emergency laws first imposed in 1962 remained in force, giving the regime draconian powers. Resentment began to rumble — not only among the Sunnis, who make up 74% of the population, but also among those Alawites who were left out of the distribution of spoils. But few dared raise their voices in anger.

Then came the Arab Spring, and long-quiet voices of dissent gained strength and momentum. Young activists took advantage of the tools Assad had made available to campaign against him: video-enabled mobile phones to record abuses by his security forces, and Internet connections to beam news around the world. "You can't quash an uprising if millions of people are acting like their own independent news stations," says Nakhla, who has helped take the footage to an international audience.

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