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Potential Hot Spots: Syria And That Sinking Feeling
   Next Article → POTENTIAL HOT SPOTS: Syria And That Sinking Feeling
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May 30, 2011:  Three months of popular unrest have left about a thousand people (nearly all protestors) dead, several thousand more injured, over 5,000 arrested and nearly 100,000 fleeing the country. The secret police have kept identifying new protest leaders, and government death squads have kept trying to kill these organizers.  But so far, new protest leaders and organizers have stepped forward. Towns and cities that were "cleansed" of protest activity have experienced unrest again after a few weeks. The secret police are too few, and the army and regular police not loyal enough, to keep every Syrian town and city quiet. The government might still win this test of will with its population, but for the moment, it doesn't look good for the dictatorship.

Bashir Assad came to power a decade ago, promising reform. But while there was some more economic freedom, Syria remained a dictatorship dominated by the Assad family, the Alawite minority and the Baath Party. Bashir has now demonstrated that he can be as brutal and ruthless as his father, whose signature repressive act was the 1982 destruction of a town held by Sunni Islamic radicals. That attack crushed the Sunni opposition. Hafez Assad was not challenged for the remaining 18 years of his life, and he died in bed, with his son Bashir succeeding him. But that was a more tyrant-friendly time. The Arab Spring has made it clear that democracy is now the preferred method of governing.

The police state, perfected by the 20th century communists, was designed to keep democrats, and other threats, from overturning a dictatorship. The Assads, and the Baath Party, learned from the Russians (when they ruled the Soviet Union from 1922-91), as did most other Arab dictators. Actually, many of the communist techniques were ancient (secret police, informer network), and the Arab tyrants had some ancient techniques (nepotism) that the communists had tried to discard. But  communist and traditional police states still had a major weakness; poor economic performance. In the 21st century, with its pervasive media and social networking, that has become a fatal distraction. Dictators stay in power by being feared, not loved. But when the population grows angrier and angrier about their poverty and lack of opportunity, they develop something worth dying for.

Police states are now under more pressure because of the growing popular unrest, and Syria is a test of whether the traditional means of repression will work. In economic terms, only about ten percent of the population benefit from a dictatorship. This fraction of the population supplies the manpower for the secret police (about 50,000 full-timers on the payroll) and the leadership of the armed forces (300,000 troops and 100,000 paramilitary, the majority of them Sunni, led by largely Alawite officers.) The Alawites are five percent of the population. Sunni Arabs are about 75 percent. Other minorities (Shia, Druze, Christian) will, up to a point, side with the Alawites (a common pattern in the Middle East, where non-Sunni minorities have long been persecuted).

As long as the army remains loyal to the government, a dictatorship can survive. Maintaining that loyalty is difficult, since the most of the troops are conscripts, and Sunnis. Most of these troops are young guys who share the same sense of anger and dissatisfaction as the demonstrators (many of whom are veterans, or young guys waiting to be drafted). The government has already had to be careful where it sends army troops, and what it asks them to do. The soldiers have been showing less enthusiasm for killing civilians, and most of the protestor casualties are caused by the secret police and their gangster allies. This use of gangsters as a secret police auxiliary is common in dictatorships, and it even existed in the Soviet Union.

Ultimately, the secret police are responsible for keeping the soldiers loyal. The secret police have informers in the military, and the reports are indicating that troop loyalty is not improving. This is why the government does not go in for large scale massacres (as Bashir Assad's father did). Bashir apparently believes that if he keeps the body count low, and makes enough convincing reform promises, things will quiet down and the popular resistance will cease. But he has to do that before troop loyalty disappears, and each civilian death erodes that loyalty a little more. None of Bashir's reform promises has really caught on with the population. Bashir is hoping the population will quit before his troops do. If the soldiers do turn on the government, or simply refuse to do anything, all that is left to protect the government is the secret police.  

Most of the secret police forces (various intelligence and "special police" agencies) are led and staffed by Alawites. But that provides only about 20,000 people (that you can depend on to the end) with guns. The secret police actually have a far larger reach. Including informers, criminal gangs (who get a license to steal in return for doing some dirty work, like firing on funerals or carrying out individual murders) and guns for hire, the secret police have some control over at least ten percent of the population of 23 million. The trouble is, as the government begins to appear weaker, many of those secret police operatives either switch sides or disappear (across the border or to another part of Syria). If the soldiers turn against the government, the secret police manpower starts to shrink rapidly just when it is needed most. This is when things can get really nasty, if the secret police use lethal force to encourage loyalty among those losing faith in the government. This often just drives more government supporters away. Dictators don't have a lot of "do or die" friends. Ruling largely through bribes and terror doesn't work when the majority of your subjects are actively hostile to you. In Syria, Libya and Yemen, you are seeing how this plays out in three countries with dictatorships, but different ethnic, religious and tribal situations.

Something else the government has to worry about is the damage all this unrest has done to the economy. This hits the major businessmen, especially the Sunni ones, the hardest. The government favors those major businessmen in return for loyalty. But many of these guys will switch sides quickly if they detect weakness in their patron. That includes the inability to maintain a good business climate. Last year, the economy grew by 3.5 percent. But in 2011, the economy is contracting at the rate of three percent a year. The longer the unrest goes on, the worse this gets, and the less loyalty the government has in the business community.

For the last month, the security forces (army and police) have contained (kept local officials in charge of towns) by developing a procedure. This consists of having troops surround towns with the most serious unrest, while secret police went in to find and arrest those they believe are the local protest leaders. The protestors have adapted, moving many protests to the evening, and using cell phones and walkie-talkies to report where the troops and secret police are, and avoid them. The protests continue, which says to the rest of Syria that the secret police are losing.

The government has also tried to use the Internet and social media to battle protestors. When this fails, it cuts Internet access to specific areas. The government has a lot of younger people, usually well educated children of Alawite families, who have the skills and stamina to take the fight to Facebook, Twitter and other social media battlegrounds. This has had some success, but not really enough. The government appears tempted to just shut down the Internet entirely, but this would hurt the economy, and major business allies are opposed to that.

May 25, 2011: Lebanon's Islamic radical  Shia group Hezbollah has publicly supported the Syrian government in its effort to stay in power. Hezbollah has already been quietly sending gunmen to help staff the death squads the Syrian secret police are using to kill opposition leaders, and disperse demonstrations that threaten to oust pro-government officials from control of towns and cities. Hezbollah denies that it is supplying this kind of muscle to Syria. Hezbollah is supported (with money and weapons) by Iran, which has also been sending more weapons, and security operatives, to Syria. Iran denies this.

May 24, 2011:  The UN reported that their investigation of a secret Syrian facility bombed by Israel in 2007 was, as the Israelis claimed, probably a nuclear research operation.

May 18, 2011:  The U.S. imposed more economic sanctions on key individuals in the Syrian dictatorship, and promised more if the Syria did not halt its use of force to suppress pro-democracy protests.  The first round of such sanctions were imposed at the end of April, and had little effect. The U.S., and most other Western and Arab countries have not been particularly vocal in their criticism of the Syrian government for the violence against Syrian protestors. This is because of the fear that the Syrian dictatorship will not be overthrown. It's believed that Syria is too valuable an ally to Iran, for Iran to let Syria go democratic. But so far, the Syrian government keeps losing ground.

May 15, 2011: The government allowed thousands of Palestinians to assemble on the Israeli border and try to march across to commemorate Nakba Day ("Disaster Day", what Palestinians call the anniversary of the establishment of Israel). Israeli troops fired on the crowds, to keep them out of Israel. One Palestinian was killed and several wounded. Syria tried to get some media mileage out of this, to distract attention from the Syrians being killed by Syrians. In Syria, like most other Arab countries, Palestinian refugees from the Arab-Israeli wars were not allowed to become citizens, but were kept in refugee camps.

May 10, 2011:  The government announced that they had the demonstrations under control and that the unrest would soon end.

Next Article → POTENTIAL HOT SPOTS: Syria And That Sinking Feeling