As an ominous desert storm blew through Damascus last weekend … Syria’s largest mobile phone company announced it was rewarding its customers with 60 minutes of free local calls, “In appreciation of the people’s stance in one heart behind their President”.
Thus proving the adage: it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
However, conspiracy theorists soon wondered if there might be some evil plan to this great munificence, because the immediate effect was to choke the system with traffic and leave large parts of the country unable to communicate.
Their suspicions were bolstered by the fact that Syriatel is majority-owned by President Bashar al-Assad’s billionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who is Syria’s richest businessman and now on the US corruption blacklist.
Since then, an unseasonal chill has settled over much of the country, bringing the balmy spring temperatures down by half in many places. And the so-called “Arab Spring” that was taking hold in Syria may also be freezing over. Since the anti-government chanting at mass public funerals on Sunday, the country has fallen quiet. And it’s not the pregnant hush that preceded last Friday’s “Day of Martyrs”; it’s more a sullen, resigned lull.
Assad may not yet be clear of trouble. Further demonstrations are planned for Thursday’s 64th anniversary of the ruling Baath party, which Syria Revolution 2011 declares on its Facebook page will be “the Day of its Death”. And these will give the regime’s opponents another chance to reach critical mass. But it does appear that momentum has been lost.
We have already seen three “Days of Rage”, a “Day of Pride” and a “Day of Martyrs”, none of which has mustered as many protesters as the incessant pro-government parades. If the regime makes it through the coming weekend it may well find it has braved the storm.
Fear of the regime, and fear of what would happen if it fell, are strong deterrents to protest. But it is not just fear that keeps Syrians from rocking the boat. The truth is Bashar al-Assad is genuinely popular, and his refusal to immediately bow to pressure is seen by many as part of his strength. Cliches about the respect for rough justice in this part of the world are not without substance, and in comparison to his father Hafez al-Assad, Bashar is seen as a modernist, even a genuine reformer, as Hilary Clinton recently put it.
Asked to account for Bashar’s popularity, many young Syrians will point to the material and cultural prosperity their President has brought the country in 11 years at the helm. When he came to power, Syria was an economically closed and politically deprived country. “Now we have mobile phones, the internet, affordable cars and electronic goods,” explained a young Syrian friend of mine. At the height of the unrest in Egypt, and with Tunisia’s regime already toppled, Assad made the bold move of lifting the ban on access to Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia. Although many Syrians had actually managing to circumvent this ban by using proxy servers, the gesture did not go unnoticed.
Personal popularity aside, the opposition to Assad is weak, lacking the numbers and leadership needed to constitute a viable alternative to the present system. “What other choice is there?” is the common refrain. The Muslim Brotherhood remains the only group capable of mobilising mass support, but their divisive politics make them an unsavory option for the moderate majority, not to mention the significant non-Muslim minorities. The government knows this, and exploits the fear of an Islamist resurgence to justify its harshness.
The frailty of Syria’s opposition is no accident. In nearly five decades in power the Assad dynasty has made sure the regime cannot easily be overthrown. It has used patronage cleverly, rewarded supporters well and crushed dissent with its all-powerful secret police. Major industries are government controlled, while the unions are mere extensions of the regime. As a result, there is no base — outside the mosques — to form a mass movement. Years of repression have suffocated civil society and forced many of the most able and politicised Syrians overseas. Although the internet is now bringing these expats back into communication with Syrians inside the country, the political infrastructure needed to form a strong opposition is still lacking.
So it seems unlikely that Syria will go the same way as Tunisia and Egypt, at least for now. But with oil revenues falling and unemployment rising, the regime may not be able to uphold its end of the bargain for long. And then the pressure will increase once more.
Tomorrow’s demonstrations outside Baath party headquarters in Damascus probably won’t amount to much — and they will doubtless be broken up quickly by Assad’s police — but that they can happen at all is amazing. Whatever the protesters achieve in the immediate future, I suspect Syria has changed forever.