Analysts: A ‘Make or Break’ Moment for Syria’s Assad

BY Robert Zeliger  April 19, 2011 at 4:01 PM EST

Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty ImagesFor nearly five weeks President Bashar al-Assad faced growing unrest in Syria without giving any significant ground. His security forces cracked down — often violently — on protesters. His Interior Ministry this week described the protests as an insurrection by “armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations.” But Tuesday, Assad’s government, considered one of the most repressive in the Middle East, seemed to shift a bit with the news that the country’s emergency law — in place for 48 years — would soon be lifted and the country’s state security court would be dissolved.

The news seemed to have little effect on protesters. Demonstrations were reported Tuesday in the city of Banias, according to Reuters.

Earlier in the day, Syrian forces reportedly opened fire to disperse crowds in Syria’s third largest city, Homs, the site of violent clashes Sunday night that left 17 protesters dead.

“This is a make or break moment for the government,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The government has made what it believes are a number of concessions. Now they are drawing the line in the sand, saying they are not going to put up with this opposition anymore. The president has announced the demonstrations in Homs were a rebellion against the state. There is a war going on. The regime is going to try to put it down.”

Despite the risk of escalating violence, analysts say there is little chance that Assad’s concessions will end the protests.

“Lifting the emergency law is very good, canceling the state security court is even better, but I don’t think it’s going to lead to business as usual,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born professor of Middle East Studies at the National Defense University. “Syria is not going to return to what it was before this unrest. These measures announced today are good, but not enough. The Syrian people want to see far more than this.”

Jouejati noted that there is still an article in the Syrian constitution (Article 8) that enshrines the ruling Baath party as the dominant political force in the state, excluding other parties from taking leadership roles in education, the armed services, and elsewhere.

“It’s ironic that the Assad regime has said they will lift the emergency law at time when Syria is up in flames,” he added. “What we are seeing now is [that] Bashar Assad and his regime have blinked first. That is unprecedented given the authoritarian nature of the regime…They have given in in trying to assuage a very angry populace.”

Assad, 45, an ophthalmologist living in London before he succeeded his father as president 11 years ago, has spoken twice since the unrest began. The first time on March 30, he stuck to a defiant tone, blaming the protests on an international conspiracy. Assad struck a more conciliatory note last Friday, promising reform and political changes, including the lifting of the emergency law.

He’s unlikely to make too many more concessions, says Landis, who blogs at SyriaComment.com. “He’s said this is as far as it’s going to go. Now it’s a rebellion. There is going to be more violence, they are not going to sit by and let themselves get swept away.”

Why then would Assad make such a concession as lifting the emergency law after weeks of remaining defiant?

Landis said Assad miscalculated, thinking he could get on top of the situation. “He thought he was liked by the people and could use his affable character and closeness to the people to show he wants to be a reformer. He does see himself as a reformer. He saw himself as liberalizing Syria when he came to power — introducing the internet, a stock exchange and bond market. He allowed Syrians to come out of their deep isolation they were in under his father.”

Now, Syrians have broken from their isolation even more dramatically, joining the revolts sweeping the region from Tunisia to Yemen. Most analysts and activists think there will be more bloodshed. The government is not going to let the protests grow, they say, and the largely leaderless protesters show few signs of backing down or growing discouraged.

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