Reports in Arab media seem to suggest that Syrian President Hafez Assad, who took over the leadership from his dictatorial father in 2000, is not going to step down despite the intensity of demonstrations in Latakia and Deraa that left 72 people dead in the last two weeks.
This is because firstly, the Syrian demonstrators have so far not demanded it, unlike demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt, who demanded that their leaders step down. According to Al-Wafd newspaper, “There is no consensus among Syrians that the Assad regime should be toppled. Rather, the demands of the Syrian demonstrators are (confined) to big changes in the government and its practices, as well as changing the security apparatus and increasing civil liberties.”
Politically, Syria is a mirror image of Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule. In Iraq, the Shiite majority was controlled by a Sunni minority, while in Syria the Sunni majority is dominated by the Alawi minority sect, a branch of Shiite Islam.
Although most Syrians dislike Assad, they are not ready to pay the price of getting rid of him. The authoritative regime in Syria has kept those who oppose him from organizing. That aside, Syrians are afraid that chaos and sectarian violence will spread in their country, like it did in neighboring Iraq.
Thirdly, unlike the isolated Libyan regime, Assad has the backing of Iran, Turkey, the United States, the European Union, Arab States, and even Israel. The United States and Israel view a Syrian government controlled by a Shiite minority as less threatening than a Sunni government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Recent statements made by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton seem to bear this out. Clinton described Assad as a “reformer.” “There is a different leader in Syria now,” Clinton said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer.”
Clinton also ruled out the possibility of a military intervention in Syria, noting that the situation in Syria could not be equated to that of Libya.
As for Israel, it worries over a Syrian country minus the leadership of Assad. Israeli Knesset reporter Eli Nisan told BBC Arabic, “In the past four decades there has been complete calm on the borders between Syria and Israel, so the possibility that Assad may disappear from the political map, is raising many questions in Israel, most importantly, who will succeed Assad? And what kind of relations will Israel have with Syria if that were to happen?”
One reason demonstrations in Syria were limited to certain regions could be because of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the country and its obvious bias toward Assad. Let’s not forget that the news outlet played a role in galvanizing the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
Al Jazeera is headquartered in Qatar, a country that shares with Iran huge offshore natural gas fields. Qatar knows it cannot afford alienating Iran.
Syria is by far the strongest Arab ally of Iran. According to Al-Wafd, if Assad were brought down, Iran would lose a loyal ally that connects the Iranian regime with Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. Qatar is using Al Jazeera’s friendly coverage of Assad as a way to maintain good relations with Iran.
Al Jazeera’s skewed reporting on Syria was obvious from the fact that the news outlet refrained from showing gruesome images of demonstrators killed by Syrian security forces. Yet, it did not hold back when it reported on killings in Tunisia and Egypt during the revolts in those countries. Some of those bloody images are on YouTube. They were also covered by other Arab media such as Al Masrawi, an Egyptian online newspaper.
Al Jazeera, in fact, has been airing positive reports about the Syrian regime. For example, on March 29 it reported that hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in support of Assad. They conveniently left out the government’s role in mobilizing these demonstrations. One political analyst told al Hiwar TV that students and city employees were given the day off and told to take to the streets.
It is also important to note that Assad has the backing of the Middle East Christian minority. Syria is home to the largest Christian community in the Middle East outside of Lebanon. More than 1.2 million Syrian Christians live in Syria, not to mention the large Christian community that fled to Syria from Iraq. These Christians would not want the secular regime of Assad to go. As Father Abu Zaid told ANB: “Today, in all frankness, the Christian leadership and religious figures are very concerned that what happened in Iraq will be repeated in Syria. If this were to happen, it would be catastrophic to the Christian presence in the Arab world.”
It is too soon to predict what will happen in Syria. News reports in the Arab media seem to indicate that Syria is calming down, at least for the time being. It seems that Assad has successfully used force to suppress the demonstrations in Deraa and Latakia, without much criticism from Arab countries or the West. This shows that Assad has learned to play his cards well from his father. That he is still the king of the jungle. (Assad in Arabic means lion.)