Can the Syrian Regime Divide and Conquer Its Opposition?

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An image grab taken from a broadcast by the Syrian state television shows scenes of clashes in Daraa on April 8, 2011. Syrian security forces shot dead at least three protesters.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy against dissent, using specific carrots-and-sticks to appease and repress the country's complicated collection of tribal, ethnic and religious interests. But that does not appear to have diminished, on various local levels, the virulence of the rancor against the long rule of the Ba'ath Party and the perceived concentration of wealth and privilege in the hands of a small elite class. Indeed, while the various uprisings have not quite coalesced into the kind of mass movements that brought down the autocracies of Tunisia and Egypt, they have continued despite the violent response of the government; and the anger has spread over large swathes of Syrian territory.

On Saturday, security forces reportedly opened fire on demonstrators in the flashpoint southern town of Dara'a during funerals to bury the dead from the previous day's anti-regime protests, the largest since unrest erupted across the country three weeks ago. Syrian opposition activists report that army troops are continuing to converge on Dara'a and the surrounding towns and villages in greater numbers in an apparent bid to crush the epicenter of the revolt.

All this comes a day after more than 30 people were reported killed when protests erupted across the country following noon prayers marking the Muslim holy day. The worst unrest was in Dara'a where activists say 31 people died in two separate confrontations with security forces. There were sizeable demonstrations in at least 15 other cities and towns, notably Homs where three people were reported killed and Latakia, Banias and Tartous on Syria's Mediterranean coast. One YouTube video purportedly shows the bodies of 10 protestors killed in Dara'a on Friday. The short clip begins with someone holding up the front page of Saturday's Tishreen newspaper in an attempt to confirm the date. Another shows protestors in Dara'a cheering as a man knocks down a bust of Hafez al-Assad, the former Syrian president and father of the current head of state. A third video shows the chaotic scenes of gunshot casualties being treated inside the landmark Omari mosque in Dara'a which has been turned into a makeshift field hospital.

The Syrian authorities have acknowledged the fatalities but blamed the violence on "saboteurs". "This is what caused material and unfortunate human losses," said Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister. "Syria respects the right to peacefully demonstrate... [government] is working to respond to the demands [the people] through a reform program."

Although Friday's protests were the most widespread and bloodiest so far, the opposition has yet to reach a critical mass that could pose a real threat to a regime that still retains the loyalty of the security forces and a large part of the population — including a merchant class that has prospered under recent economic reform. Syrian activists argue, however, that the regime is working to undermine the perception of a nationwide uprising, instead depicting the incidents as a series of local problems. "They are trying to make it look as though it's not a national problem but just regional issues that they can deal with one by one. They are trying to divide and conquer us, but we are working to make this a national campaign," says Malath Aumran, the on-line pseudonym of a Syrian opposition activist helping coordinate the protests from exile in Beirut.

The rebellion in Dara'a was provoked by the arrest of a handful of youths for daubing a wall with anti-regime graffiti. When the security forces killed several people protesting the arrests, it fueled further demonstrations and created a chain reaction that has turned the town and surrounding villages into the epicenter of the uprising. The regime initially used a combination of concessions and violence to try and stamp out the protests, replacing the unpopular governor of Dara'a and ordering the release of detainees from the town. But the tactic has failed to mollify the local population which is rooted in a strict tribal society where concepts of honor and dignity run deep. The regime similarly has attempted to placate the residents of Deir ez Zor, another tribal town straddling the Euphrates river in eastern desert. But Nawaf al-Bashir, the leader of the Al-Bakkara tribe, the largest in Syria, has vowed to press on with the uprising until key reforms are made."They take us for slaves — for four decades now they have subjected us to indiscriminate affronts and killings," he told Agence France Presse.

On Thursday, the Syrian authorities announced they would grant citizenship to stateless Kurds, roughly 20% of the two to three million Kurds living in Syria. The regime has been keeping a wary eye of the well-organized and traditionally rebellious Kurds. But the offer of "Syrian Arab" identity met with little enthusiasm among the non-Arab Kurds who held a large number of protests Friday in their north-eastern stronghold, chanting "We don't want nationality, we want freedom" and "One, one, one: the Syrian people are one."

Meanwhile, the role of Islam grows more prominent. Syria officially is a secular country, but religion is a powerful force and one that has grown stronger over the past decade. Both the opposition and the regime recognize that mosques have become crucial rallying points, especially on Fridays when it is acceptable for men to gather in one place without facing harassment from the security forces. As a consequence, Syrian authorities have been holding talks with Sunni clerics to encourage them to stand with the regime rather than drift into the ranks of the opposition where they can use their influential positions as mosque imams to galvanize protests. In the past week, in a nod to conservative religious impulses, the regime has overturned a nine-month ban on teachers wearing the niqab, a full face-covering veil worn by Muslim women, and closed the country's only casino.

The concessions have had met mixed success. While some clerics are continuing to call for calm and faith in the regime's promised reforms, others have sided with the street. The Syria Revolution Facebook page on Friday posted a letter purportedly signed by at least a dozen clerics from Homs in which they list 16 demands including lifting the draconian state of emergency law, releasing all political detainees, halting harassment by the security forces and combating corruption.