Syria — Protests (2011)

Posted on March 26, 2011

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World > Countries and Territories > Syria

Updated: March 25, 2011

Syria’s harsh and stagnant dictatorship at first seemed immune to the wave of unrest that swept through most of the Arab world after the revolution in Tunisia in January 2011. But in mid-March, demonstrations broke out in several cities, and grew rapidly after security forces fired on protesters.

The country’s president is Bashar al-Assad, the son of Hafez al-Assad, who ruled with an iron hand for three decades before his death in 2000. The Assads belonged to the Allawite sect, a minority that came to hold most of the top positions in the government and military.

Under Hafez al-Assad, Syria was reviled in the West for its support of terrorist groups and generally isolated even from more moderate Arab countries. Bashar al-Assad from time to time made gestures toward greater openness. But it remained one of the region’s most repressive regimes.

In February 2011, after the fall of Egypt’s strongman, Hosni Mubarak, a handful of demonstrations were called in Syria. But the demonstrators were always outnumbered by the police, and were quickly arrested or dispersed.

But in the southern town of Dara’a, where citizens were outraged by the arrest of more than a dozen schoolchildren, protests broke out in March, as several thousand people took to the streets for days in a row.

On March 21, demonstrators in Dara’a set fire to the ruling Baath Party’s headquarters and other government buildings. Police officers fired live ammunition into the crowds, killing at least one and wounding scores of others, witnesses said.

Mr. Assad made some conciliatory gestures, but crowds continued to gather in and around the Omari mosque in Dara’a, chanting their demands: the release of all political prisoners; trials for those who shot and killed protesters; the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law; more freedoms; and an end to pervasive corruption.

On March 23, security forces began a crackdown, after the Syrian Army reinforced the police presence in the city, near the Jordanian border, and confronted a group of protesters who had gathered in and around the Omari mosque in the city center. News agencies gave conflicting death tolls from clashes over the next two days.

Mr. Assad promised increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers. High-ranking aides said that the army would not shoot peaceful demonstrators and spoke of lifting the 50-year-old state of emergency.

But on March 25, after Friday prayers, violence erupted around the country as troops opened fire on protesters in several cities and pro- and anti-government crowds clashed on the tense streets of the capital. Tens of thousands were involved in demonstrations.

The last serious stirrings of public discontent had come in 1982, when increasingly violent skirmishes with the Muslim Brotherhood prompted Hafez al-Assad to move against them, sending troops to kill at least 10,000 people and smashing the old city of Hama. Hundreds of fundamentalist leaders were jailed, many never seen alive again.

Syria has a liability not found in the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — it is a majority Sunni nation that is ruled by a religious minority, the Allawite sect of Shiite Islam. Hafez Assad forged his power base through fear, cooption and sect loyalty. He built an alliance with an elite Sunni business community, and created multiple security services staffed primarily by Alawites. Those security forces have a great deal to lose if the government falls, experts said, because they are part of a widely despised minority, and so have the incentive of self-preservation.

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Under the administration of President George W. Bush, Syria was once again vilified as a dangerous pariah. It was linked to the  2005 killing of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. In 2007, Israeli jets destroyed buildings in Syria that intelligence officials said might have been the first stage in a nuclear weapons program. And the United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Damascus, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the middle east through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

President Obama came into office pledging to engage with Syria, arguing that the Bush administration’s efforts to isolate Syria had done nothing to wean it from Iran or encourage Middle East peace efforts. So far, however, the engagement has been limited. American diplomats have visited Damascus, but have reiterated the same priorities as the Bush administration: protesting Syria’s military support to Hezbollah and Hamas, and its strong ties with Iran.

Secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to several news organizations show that arms transactions involving Syria and Hezbollah continue to greatly concern the Obama administration. Hezbollah’s arsenal now includes up to 50,000 rockets and missiles, including some 40 to 50 Fateh-110 missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and most of Israel, and 10 Scud-D missiles.

“Syria’s determined support of Hizballah’s military build-up, particularly the steady supply of longer-range rockets and the introduction of guided missiles could change the military balance and produce a scenario significantly more destructive than the July-August 2006 war,” said a November 2009 cable from the American chargé d’affaires in Damascus.

According to cables, Syrian leaders appeared to believe that the weapons shipments increased their political leverage with the Israelis. But they made Lebanon even more of a tinderbox and increased the prospect that a future conflict might include Syria.

Also looming is potential new trouble in Lebanon, where a United Nations-backed international tribunal is expected to indict members of Hezbollah in the death of Mr. Hariri. Hezbollah and its allies — including high-ranking Syrian officials — have warned that an indictment could set off civil conflict.

The United States withdrew its ambassador in 2005 after Mr. Hariri was killed in a car bombing in Beirut along with 22 others. Syria was widely accused of having orchestrated the killing, though it has vehemently denied involvement. The Bush administration imposed economic sanctions on Syria, as part of a broader effort to isolate the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The current chill is a significant change from the situation a few years ago, when Mr. al-Assad showed signs of wanting warmer relations with the West than his father, Hafez al-Assad, had ever pursued. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit in September 2008. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in March 2009. And Prime Minster Ehud Olmert of Israel hinted at a revival of talks on the Golan Heights — a prospect that faded when Mr. Olmert was succeeded by the more conservative Benjamin Netanyahu.

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