Fear of repression, chaos stalks Syrian protests

Will anti-regime protests spread across Syria?

The challenge to the Syrian regime is currently being contained by fear of the security services and a descent into Iraq-like chaos, as well as the president's reformist image, analysts believe.
Since the unrest began on March 15, neither the capital Damascus, second city Aleppo nor Hama, where a 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt was put down by President Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez, has seen major protests, rights activists say.
Instead, anti-regime demonstrations have been confined to the south's mainly agricultural province of Daraa, the industrial city of Homs, the conservative northern Damascus suburb of Douma and Kurdish-majority regions of the north.
"Because of the harshness of the security forces, many people believe it's better to wait and see what happens with the promised reforms, before going onto the streets and risking arrest," said Rime Allaf, a Syrian researcher at the Chatham House think tank in London.
In a bid to quell the unprecedented protests in Syria, the regime announced it would examine ending emergency laws, allow other political parties in a state ruled by the Baath party since 1963, fight graft and allow more freedom of information.
"The other dissuasive element is the regime's insistence on focusing on the 'fitna' factor," Allaf added of the spectre of confessional dissent.
Officials have blamed the violence on "armed groups" and foreigners seeking to divide the ethnically and religiously diverse country.
"Syrians fear seeing their country plunge into chaos, having seen the massive influx of dozens of thousands of Iraqis and Lebanese fleeing civil strife in their own countries," she added.
Syria is a multi-ethnic nation of Arabs and Kurds, but it is also multi-denominational, with a Sunni Muslim majority, the ruling minority Alawite sect, Christians and a multitude of smaller religious communities.
The fear of Iraq- and Lebanon-style sectarian violence erupting in their own country is strong among many Syrians.
Iraq was rocked by bloody intercommunal violence between Sunnis and Shiites in 2006 and 2007, and Lebanon -- Syria's tiny western neighbour -- suffered a vicious 15-year civil war between 1975 and 1990.
Syria has historically viewed Lebanon as part of its territory, and for 29 years had a troop presence there until it was forced to end its military domination in April 2005.
"During the huge pro-Assad demonstrations on March 29, of course there were many people there who love him and there were also Baath party members," said Wadah Abed Rabbo, owner of Syria's only privately owned daily Al-Watan, which is close to the ruling regime.
"But there were also a lot of people who see him as a guarantor of security."
Some also believe the 45-year-old Assad cannot be likened to Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, 82 and ousted after 30 years in power, or Tunisia's 74-year-old Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who fell after ruling for 23 years.
"Even if he did succeed his father Hafez al-Assad, Bashar has succeeded in nurturing the image of a reformer whose ambitions are thwarted by conservatives in his family and the Baath party," said a businessman.
The man, in his sixties and asking not to be identified, has no great love for the Baath party which confiscated his land in the 1960s.
"He (Assad) still has a capital of sympathy, even if he very quickly brought an end to the momentum that accompanied his accession to power" in 2000 after the death of his father, the businessman said.
"Today, without rapid moves to liberalise politics, that capital will disappear," he said.
"At best he will look faint-hearted, at worst he will appear as someone who wants to keep the political and security status quo," he added.
A human rights activist, who asked not to be identified, said: "It is for economic reasons that there is not a lot happening in Damascus and Aleppo."
For Thomas Pierret, a researcher at Berlin's Zentrum Moderner Orient, it is all a question of numbers.
"In order to make the regime bend, the Syrian opposition must mobilise the population in far greater numbers than they have done so far," Pierret wrote in an opinion piece in the French daily Le Monde on Wednesday.
"The bourgeois families of Damascus and Aleppo, many of whose sons joined the Islamist insurrection 30 years ago, have not yet joined the protest movement," he wrote.
"The merchant class has greatly enriched itself with recent economic liberalisation, and will undoubtedly think twice when it comes to choosing between liberty and stability."