It is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s turn to face the dilemma that other dictators swept up in the Middle East's wave of protests have already confronted. On Syria’s “Day of Rage,” for which thousands of protesters have been summoned to demand political change, many will be watching in his country and in others, to see whether he responds with force or more concessions, or whether he lets it proceed.
Earlier in the week, after nearly two weeks of protests left as many as 70 people dead, Syrians had hoped for an announcement of serious political reform from Assad, especially a lifting of the vice-like emergency laws that prohibit protests and allow security forces to crack down on demonstrators. But Assad left the laws in place, offering only a vague promise for change. The regime would not be pressured into making “premature” reforms, he said.
Assad ended his speech with a threat to those challenging his 11-year rule. "We don't seek battles," he said, "But if a battle is imposed on us today, we welcome it."
Social-media sites called for a massive protest on Friday. “Dear young Syrians,” a post on a Facebook group called the “Syrian Revolution” said in Arabic on Thursday evening. “Do not be afraid … get out tomorrow. You are the victors, and [Assad’s system] knows that the supporters of his people will turn on him and the end will come.... Martyrs, we hope to see you in the garden of bliss.”
The Internet backlash came despite word that Assad’s ruling party had formed a committee to study legislation that would “pave the way for lifting the state of emergency laws,” and after Assad dismissed his 32-member Cabinet.
For the Syrian president, the protest carries significant risk. If he offers concessions, he risks destabilizing his regime -- and it's not clear if concessions will appease the protesters. If he uses force, the violence is likely to galvanize the protesters and trigger international concern.
Already, the calls for Assad's removal have begun. People in Daraa and Latakia, for example, the scenes of the two biggest flash points of violence, have become more radicalized in their demands for reform — they want to see change at the top, said Radwan Ziadeh, founder of the Damascus Center for Human Rights. “They are saying, ‘Down with the regime!’ ” he told National Journal. “They want to topple the head.”
In Syria, Iran's closest Arab ally in recent years, Ziadeh said that the protests are still in "the very early stage." They began with a group of young people arrested in Dara’a for writing antigovernment graffiti inspired by the movements in Egypt and Tunisia. "The protesters’ slogans are very general; they’re calling for freedom, to combat corruption,” he said.
But if the demonstrations continue, the opposition is likely to come together to put forward more concrete demands for reform, he added. General agreement already exists that the country needs to release political prisoners, reform media laws, hold a new—and fair — parliamentarian election, and create a new democratic constitution.
There are lessons for Assad from elsewhere in the region. In Egypt, security forces tried to enforce President Hosni Mubarak’s ban on protests on the January 28 “Day of Anger,” using rubber bullets and teargas to disperse mobs, arresting hundreds, and downing Internet and cellphone service. Mubarak tried firing his government and other concessions before being forced to abandon power.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II also dismissed his Cabinet in February, charging a new prime minister with “quick and tangible” reform, and instructing him to meet with members of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood—the first such meeting in a decade. Those moves failed to stop the violent protests continuing there.
In Yemen, where protests began peacefully, President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced a state of emergency after at least 50 people died on March 18. Saleh dismissed his Cabinet two days later, but protesters and a wave of defecting officials say he must step down immediately. Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali also dismissed his Cabinet and has since left power.
In Libya, Muammar el-Qaddafi's crackdown on rebel forces prompted the current international response and calls for his ouster.
The NATO-led coalition engaged in Libya undoubtedly has an eye on the situation in Syria. Iran wants to keep Assad in power; Saudi Arabia would love to see him fall.
Assad made it clear on Wednesday that protests will not be tolerated, though he delayed his speech for days. Ziadeh said that was a strong indication of a struggle inside Assad's inner circle on how to proceed.
“There are maybe some who are for negotiating with the people and dealing with their demands; there are others who are pushing for the security approach,” he said. “It’s clear from his speech which people have the upper hand and it’s also clear that all Assad’s analysts were wrong when they said that Syria is immune.”
In a rare interview with the Wall Street Journal on January 28, just after the protests erupted in Egypt, Assad said that Mideast autocrats must respond to a “new era," but he was skeptical about making quick democratic changes in his own country. The timeframe was not so important, he said. "People are patient in our region."