Friday, February 4, 2011

Syrian Authorities Break Up Protest, Maintain Full Control

By Barry Rubin

Why are moderate Arab regimes--even if dictatorships--shaken by protest while hardline ones aren't? Because at the least sign of trouble the radical governments crack down. Knowing that punishment will be harsh and that the West won't be interested few dare to do anything.

And so in Damascus a silent vigil in support of the Egyptian protesters was quickly broken up. One attacker snarled, “[Bashar al] Assad is your president, and if you don’t like it in Syria, you should move to Egypt.”  Demonstrators were told they were Israeli agents committing treason. 

According to a source, there were 200 demonstrators and 1000 police and security personnel. One Syrian said sadly, "Why are the revolutions taking place in Tunisia and Egypt instead of here?"

That question, of course, cannot be answered definitively but aside from repression and belief that the government is strong (young Bashar, not old Husni), there are social factors. The regime has a built-in backing from the Alawites who form much of the ruling class. Though this is a controversial issue, my view is that Alawites are not really Muslims. They would not fair well in an Islamist revolution. The large Christian community looks at the regime as its protector from persecution by Islamists.

The largest segment of the population, Sunni Muslims, have been bought off by the regime's militant demagoguery, hatred of Israel, and support for Sunni Muslim Islamists abroad. In short, whether or not the old Arab nationalist methods work in Egypt, they certainly still work in Syria.

One target of the protest was corruption, for example the fact that communications companies entirely controlled by Rami Makhlouf, President Assad's cousin, charge sky-high prices. 

How much attention will the U.S. government give to events in Syria? Might it call for Bashar to resign and threaten to end its "engagement" with Syria if he doesn't leave or grant more rights? Of course not. In fact a U.S. ambassador has just arrived, an action that the Syrian regime sees as a concession, and Syria is generally flattered in the Western media.

Any wonder why America's enemies multiply in number while its friends shrink?

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