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As Protests Grow, Will Syrians See Reforms or More Bloodshed?

April 8, 2011 at 6:59 PM EDT
Protesters seeking political reforms gathered across Syria, but government forces opened fire on demonstrators with tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds. Judy Woodruff discusses the unrest with the New America Foundation's Flynt Leverett and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Two views now on the unrest in Syria. And for that, we turn to Flynt Leverett. He’s a professor of international affairs at Penn State and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He’s the author of “Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire” has and served at the National Security Council. And Andrew Tabler, he’s a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He worked as a journalist in Syria and is the author of the forthcoming book “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria.”

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Andrew Tabler, to you first. How strong is this protest movement, this movement against President Assad?

ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, they’re gaining strength.

Today, we had 32 killed, 25 in Daraa, which has been the epicenter of the protests to date. But it’s not just in terms of scale that these protests have grown. Now they’re starting to spread outside of Daraa to other areas, to Kurdish areas, which are traditionally against the Assad regime, as well as to the Homs, to the Syrian coast, other areas which are traditionally loyal to the regime.

So this is cracking away at a lot of the Sunni veneer around Bashar Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime. And it is obviously — the measures he’s taken so far haven’t — haven’t stopped the protests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are describing the Sunnis, an ethnic group, in Syria.

ANDREW TABLER: The majority in Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The majority.

ANDREW TABLER: That’s correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Flynt Leverett, how do you see the strengths of this protest movement?

FLYNT LEVERETT, New America Foundation: I don’t think it’s yet gained any kind of strategically determinative influence in Syrian society.

I think that the big difference between Syria and a place like Egypt, say, is that in Egypt you don’t really have a society with a lot of ethnic or sectarian divisions. Pretty much everyone thinks of himself, herself, as an Egyptian. There may be class differences, political differences, but they’re not really fundamental differences of identity.

Syria is a real mosaic in terms of its society. And I think that President Assad can probably marshal at least 50 percent of the society, which would prefer him and the present regime to any plausible alternative.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are saying he still holds popularity there.

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think he does still hold significant reserves popular support; that’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you square that, Andrew Tabler, with what you are saying?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, I think — well, I think that the — it ultimately gets down to the way the regime is structured.

The Assad regime is controlled by Alawites and other minorities which gather around the Assad family. And those networks overlap in the military and the security bodies. The problem now is that it is unlikely that the Assad regime is going to split or that the military would break away, as they did in Tunis and in Egypt, and oust the ruling family.

So their backs are really against the wall. And with protests increasing in number, and — it’s no surprise that the number of killed are going up. And I expect that, if the protests continue, that the death toll will go higher and higher.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying that — that, even though the protests are building, that there are these factors that are going to keep it from overturning the regime any time soon?

ANDREW TABLER: Most definitely. I think that there’s a — that what these networks do is, they galvanize the regime against the kind of splitting we saw in Egypt and Tunis.

But, of course, it depends on what the breaking point of the regime is. We are clearly not at that point yet. But it’s clear that the protests are moving in that general direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Flynt Leverett, how do you size up the response of the regime so far? I mean, they have been very tough. President Assad made the speech last — gave no ground whatsoever. Does this say anything about how he’s like or different from his father?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think the strategic problem is, in broad terms, the same for his father and now for Bashar al-Assad.

The strategic problem is to hold this society together. The biggest concern for, I think, still a majority of Syrians is that they have seen next door in Lebanon, they have seen next door in Iraq what happens when a multiethnic, multiconfessional society comes apart in the Middle East.

There are more than a million Iraqi refugees living in Syria right now as daily testament to that. And I think that most Syrians, certainly the constituencies that Bashar al-Assad is counting on to support him, are not looking to him primarily at this point for bold reform initiatives.

I think they’re looking to him primarily to demonstrate that he can hold this together and keep it from turning into post-Saddam Iraq or civil war Lebanon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that how you see it?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, there definitely are fears among the population about sectarian strife and the possibility of it.

But it’s very clear from the — because the protests are growing, that that fear factor is dissipating. And this is the first time that that has happened since the Hama massacre of 1982.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how do you account for that? Why is that?

ANDREW TABLER: It’s for several reasons.

First, Bashar has promised reform for 11 years and has not delivered. He’s made some economic changes, but the political reforms haven’t come. People are extremely frustrated. So, it would be very much like what is happening in Egypt and — and in Tunis.

But, also, people are increasingly accessing each other online via the Internet, which has spread in Syria. They are living online. They are living on Facebook and Twitter. And they are — and they are very clearly organizing in that way. And this is capturing the youth of Syria.

Remember, Syria had one of the highest population growth rates in the world in the ’80s and the early ’90s. And now those people are hitting the job market, and they’re organizing online.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Flynt Leverett, who at this point is Bashar al-Assad listening to? What are the forces that have the most influence on him? And is he hearing any voices of reform, urging him toward reform?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think that Bashar understands that as part of his long-term strategy for Syria, that Syria has to modernize — and I think I would prefer that word to — to reform — that Syria has to modernize if it’s going to have a long-term future.

And I think he is genuinely committed to that. But he is — overall, I think he’s concerned with the strategic challenge of holding this place together and keeping it as a genuinely independent actor in regional politics. Those are his first priorities.

And promoting modernization in the economy, which I think he believes has to proceed really Syria’s political reform, that comes in the context of these larger strategic objectives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what does that say in terms of how he is going to respond, how you see him moving ahead to respond or not respond to these growing protests?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, the most important response — and you saw that in Bashar’s speech — is that he talks about reform, but he never gets around to actually implementing it or to putting it on paper. That’s because Bashar rules through ambiguity.

That is how a tyrannical regime opens up to the international community, because by keeping the reforms without any kind of legal basis or any — under people’s feet, while at the same time raising their expectations, allows — it keeps people from moving in the country. And they look elsewhere to other Arab countries next door that the Syrians now visit, because they come and go from the country. And they’re changing their minds and they’re taking their fury out on the regime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, where do you see these protests going? Where do you see…

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think the protests will continue for a while. I think Andrew is correct that the security force response is likely to get more severe over time. And I think that President Assad is going to count on, essentially, as I said, a majoritarian support within the country to support him in doing what he needs to do to restore order.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if you continue to have the deaths like today’s 32 deaths reported, does that mean the protests — or what? I mean, what does that say to you about what’s — what we have to look forward to?

ANDREW TABLER: The protesters know that Bashar is not a reformer. And they know that, as soon as they leave the street, the necessity to actually reform and follow through, politically or economically or otherwise, will have gone, and Bashar will do nothing.

So, they’re staying out there. They’re demanding their rights, and they’re going to push this forward. Now, where it’s all going to end, I don’t know. I anticipate that this could get very bloody in the weeks ahead, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to settle down, because now, with the number of killed today, we’re going to have that many more funerals. And then there will be perhaps another cycle the following week.

We will have to watch very closely what President Assad does in the coming week, what kind of announcement he makes, and what he is actually willing to put into writing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will continue to watch it.

And we appreciate the insights from both of you. Andrew Tabler, Flynt Leverett, thank you, gentlemen.

FLYNT LEVERETT: Thank you.

ANDREW TABLER: Thanks very much.