In Syria, Can The President Outlast The Protesters?

Oct 19, 2011
Originally published on October 19, 2011 7:40 pm

Syria's President Bashar Assad has survived an uprising that's now in its eighth month, and he shows no signs of buckling. The president has relied on a massive security presence to limit protests at home, and has dismissed criticism and sanctions from abroad.

But is this strategy sustainable, or is Assad simply buying time?

In central Damascus, there are few signs of the country's turmoil. The courtyard of the massive Ommayed mosque, the largest in the city, is a peaceful place. Even the soldiers and security men, here to prevent any protest in the heart of the capital, seem relaxed.

Raneen Hassan, 22, is on an outing with her family and stops to feed pigeons that roost in the square. She is dismissive of those taking part in the protests.

"It's very good and quiet, and a very peaceful place," she says of the mosque.

When asked about the cities and villages outside the capital, where demonstrations are still common, if smaller than in previous months, Hassan say she is not impressed. These people are paid agents, she says.

"They are young people, young women, young men. So I don't give a damn about them," she said.

An official government escort is with me during an interview with a merchant, who insists there is no anti-government revolt at all. He says he is convinced by confessions he sees on state television. In these appearances, men allegedly involved in the uprising say they are from al-Qaida. And the merchant says he never watches the Western and Arab news networks that broadcast videos of peaceful protests, saying they are full of lies.

Support In The Capital

Despite the uprising that has left some 3,000 people dead, the regime can still count on this base of support, particularly in the capital and in Syria's economic center in Aleppo.

Pro-Assad rallies in Damascus and Aleppo this week, with tens of thousands participating, seemed designed to send a message of strength.

There have been some defections from the army, though the Syrian military and security forces are intact. The international community cannot agree on measures to halt the violent government crackdown. Syrian officials seem confident that the protests can be contained, according to sources who have regular contact with insiders.

"We are ending a period of confrontation between government and some demonstrators," says Waddah Abd Rabbo, editor of Al Watan, a pro-government daily.

He says the country is entering a new phase. "It's better to go through dialogue because nobody can win the battle in the street," Abd Rabbo says.

The relentless government campaign and mass arrests have taken a toll on the protest movement, and the government now seems confident it can contain the crisis, says human rights activist Wissam Tarif, who is in neighboring Lebanon.

"They are trying to manage the uprising, make it manageable by security forces, which in my personal view, they have done that in a lot of cities," he says. "But the big question is: Do they make it sustainable? It is management, it is not sustainable. And that is the real challenge."

Government Opponents Organizing

While the street protests appear to be losing momentum, a new political landscape is emerging. For the first time in decades, political groups outside government control are beginning to assert themselves.

A coalition of dissidents has united outside the country. The Syrian National Council, announced in Istanbul, Turkey, brought together the Muslim Brotherhood with secular dissidents, as well as young leaders from the protest movement.

Inside Syria, other dissident groups are trying to win public support. At a news conference in Damascus, Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Kheyer, a former political prisoner, explains that there is no way out of the crisis without a political solution.

"There is no way out of this without politics," he says. "Syria is still in a tunnel where there is no light seen until now."

This is a dangerous time, Kheyer says. Protesters feel abandoned by the international community. There are increasing calls for armed rebellion. Now, the Arab League is pushing negotiations by the end of the month between the regime and the newly formed opposition. Kheyer fears the Syrian leadership will miss the chance by rejecting the offer.

"Most of those who hold power believe we don't need to talk to anyone — and we will kill whatever needs to be killed, and we will rule for a long, long time again," he says.

The protest movement, meanwhile, may not be as large as it was, but it is still aggressively challenging the regime. One recent YouTube video shows a group of men swarming around an armored Syrian military vehicle. Activists say they captured the gunner in the southern town of Dera'a.

Wissam Tarif, the human rights activist, says the regime's crackdown doesn't solve the problem, but only buys some time.

"The minute they pull the troops out, the minute they give the security forces less power, people will go out and protest again and again until Bashar al Assad and his regime crack and leave the country," he says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The popular revolt in Syria has dragged on for seven months now. And President Bashar al-Assad shows no sign of buckling under the pressure of the uprising or Western sanctions.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports that the Assad government is playing for time with a massive security presence in the Syrian capital.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: In Damascus, the courtyard of the Ommayed Mosque, the largest in the city, is a peaceful place.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AMOS: Even the soldiers and security men seem relaxed, here to suppress any sign of protest in the heart of the capital. Twenty-two-year-old Raneen Hassan, on an outing with her family, stops to feed pigeons that roost in the square.

RANEEN HASSAN: Yes, it's very good and quiet and very peaceful place.

AMOS: And what do you think about what's happening in the other places?

HASSAN: I think it's not that big, much case to speak about Syria.

AMOS: Those other places - cities and villages outside the capital - still mount demonstrations, but in smaller numbers than before. Hassan dismisses the anti-government revolt.

HASSAN: They are young people, young women, young men. So, don't give a damn to them.

AMOS: An official government escort is with me when a merchant insists there is no anti-government demonstrations at all. He's convinced by confessions he sees on state television, men who say they are with al-Qaida. The Arab satellite channels and Western media that broadcast videos of peaceful protests - that's all lies, he says.

Do you watch Al-Jazeera?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No. (Foreign language spoken) No Jazeera. No Arabiah. No BBC. Never.

AMOS: Never?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Never.

AMOS: After nearly eight months of protest and a crackdown that's left more than 3,000 people dead, the regime can still count on this base of support. Despite some army defections, the Syrian military and security forces are intact. Syrian officials seem confident, according to sources who have regular contact with insiders.

WADDAH ABD RABBO: They are ending a period of confrontation between government and some demonstrator. Nobody can win the battle in the street.

AMOS: That's Waddah Abd Rabbo, editor of Al-Watan, a pro-government daily. The relentless government campaign and mass arrests have taken a toll. And the government is confident, says human rights activist Wissam Tariff.

WISSAM TARIFF: They are trying to manage the uprising by security forces, which they have done that in a lot of cities. But the big question is how they make it sustainable. It is manageable, but it's not sustainable. And that is the real challenge.

AMOS: While the street protests appear to be losing momentum, Syrian politics is in a new phase. For the first time in decades, political groups outside government control are beginning to assert themselves. A coalition of dissidents has united outside the country.

Inside Syria, these government opponents are trying to win public support. The meeting is led by Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Kheyer, a former political prisoner.

DR. ABDUL AZIZ AL-KHEYER: There is no way out of this without politics. Syria is still in a tunnel where there is no light seen up till now.

AMOS: This is a dangerous time, Kheyer says. Protestors feel abandoned by the international community. There are increasing calls for armed rebellion. Now, the Arab League is pushing negotiations between the regime and the newly formed opposition by the end of this month. Kheyer fears the Syrian regime will miss the chance by rejecting the offer.

AL-KHEYER: Most of those who hold power believe we do not need to talk with anyone and we will kill whatever needed to be killed, and we will rule for a long, long, long time again.

AMOS: Do you think that's possible?

AL-KHEYER: Never. Syria has changed indeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

AMOS: The protest movement is changing, too. Here, a group of men swarm a Syrian tank and capture the gunner. Wissam Tariff says the regime's crackdown doesn't solve the problem, but only buys time.

TARIFF: The minute they pull the troops out, the minute they give the security forces less powers, people will go out and protest again and again until Bashar al-Assad and his regime crack and leave the country.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.