Sitting Pretty in Syria: Why Few Go Bashing Bashar

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Hussein Malla / AP

Syrian flags with images of President Bashar Assad decorate the street scene in Damascus on Feb. 5, 2011

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Still, not everyone agrees that the Baath regime can be reformed from within or that such changes — assuming they happen — will be enough. Such concerns may actually handicap reform, says Ayman Abdel-Nour, a Syrian dissident who edits from Dubai. "I think the President knows the need for change, but the apparatus is convincing him that if he starts compromising with the people, that [process] cannot be stopped because they will ask always for more," he says. George Jabbour, a former parliamentarian and adviser to former President Hafez Assad, says the regime will neither fall nor falter. "Everybody overseas is calling and asking me, 'Is Syria next?' " he says. "It's wishful thinking."

There are several reasons that both Abdel-Nour and Jabbour may be right. Decades of tight control have ensured that there is no real opposition to speak of, no obvious alternative to the current powers that be. The Baath's opponents are a motley crew of aging intellectuals, most of whom cycle in and out of prison every few years ("There are places reserved for them; the only thing that changes is the names," says human-rights activist Qurabi), in addition to cowed Islamists, long-repressed Kurds and exiled or estranged members of Assad's family or inner clique. The last include his uncle Rifaat Assad and Abdel-Halim Khaddam, one of Hafez Assad's longtime Vice Presidents.

Syrians don't have to look far to see what wholesale regime change looks like. It isn't pretty. The country hosts well over a million Iraqi refugees, the largest number in the region. Iraq, with its multiethnic, multisectarian society, more closely resembles Syria's than the relatively homogenous populations of Egypt or Tunisia. Assad's minority Alawite sect has long governed the country's Sunni Muslim majority, which comprises about 70%, as well as the Christians, Kurds and other Shi'ites. There are many fault lines. "God forbid, God forbid the Baath falls here. We will wish we were as unstable as Iraq," says a 34-year-old man who requested anonymity. "Iraq will look like a paradise."

Also unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, which have a history of relatively vibrant civil societies, Syrian non-governmental organizations and parties, although present in small numbers, are unlicensed and therefore illegal, ensuring that the only group with the infrastructure to quickly and effectively mobilize citizens on the streets remains the Baath.

The fear factor cannot be underestimated. When asked, Syrians can quickly recount two popular revolts that were brutally repressed, one against the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 by the elder Assad, the other against stateless Kurds in Qamishli in 2004 by his son Bashar.

Although there are no shortage of groups hoping to settle scores with the Syrian regime, it's unclear if they have the capability to do so. Analysts say the military in Syria is more likely to emulate the Libyan example, attacking protesters with brute force, rather than emulate its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, which sided with the protesters rather than the regimes. "The majority of the army leaders and intelligence are from one sect [the Alawite], so the Libyan example is more likely," says Abdel-Nour, "but for sure it will not be united if massacres are committed."

For now, the regime is offering carrots while not hiding its sticks. It recently backpedalled on its decision to trim subsidies, unexpectedly raising heating-fuel assistance for 2 million public-sector employees. It also began issuing small cash payments to 420,000 of Syria's poorest families. Facebook was unblocked, although some rights activists say the move was more about enabling authorities to better monitor the site as well as to ascertain if calls for protests were coming from within or outside the country. Jabbour says the moves weren't tied to regional events. "It wasn't a new thing. You can't say they were scared, so they acted," he says.

In a region that thinks of power in terms of generations, many people here don't place Assad in the same category as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali or Libya's Gaddafi, pointing out that the Syrian President has "only" been at the helm for about a decade. But the lesson of the uprisings is that anything is possible; and the old ways, including biding one's time, may no longer be viable — even for a young President.

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