In Western culture, a profound crisis demands due seriousness: A graven-faced president would sit behind an imposing desk, with the symbolic tokens of authority, and with an array of flags artfully painting the gravitas of the moment. But here was President Assad jocularly and informally addressing parliament, occasionally chuckling at his own jokes — and even engaging in lighthearted banter with some quite rowdy members of his audience. How “unpresidential,” a Western politician might murmur to himself at such a key moment, and “so lacking in specifics on reform.”
But this was its point: Assad’s style was intentionally informal. It spoke to a different image than a stereotype: it was of a young leader, one who was not ossified by time and convention. It was a broad hint to a domestic audience, accustomed to nuance, that the President really does believe in reform. This conviction about Assad — that he is not old guard — is widely held in Syria, even by many of those who have been demonstrating in the streets. Most Syrians do believe that the President did not order the security forces to use live fire, but forbade it. This is the difference between Syria and, say, Egypt. There, everyone knew Mubarak would never, ever reform. Most Syrians however believe that Assad instinctively is reformist.
Assad’s address was, to an extent, an audacious one — carefully tilted toward the particular Syrian context, rather than to the general context of (other) Arab states and the regional revolutionary fervor. In his interview in January with the Wall Street Journal, the president was very clear about the absolute necessity for internal reform and for respecting the peoples’ dignity:
It is about doing something … to change the society, and we have to keep up with this change, as a state and as institutions … it is about … the people’s feeling and dignity, about the people participating in the decisions of their country. It is about another important issue … [about being] very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests [alone]; they also live on beliefs…
Very plainly, Assad was committing himself to reform. In his recent address, he repeated it: “Without reform we are on the path of destruction,” but then he chose deliberately not to offer a list of concessions to those who had so far demonstrated. This omission was the most carefully deliberated and calculated aspect of his speech. Recall that the Syrian state was not in peril. No senior figure has defected from it, and the army remains loyal. The protest movement in Daraa so far has failed to take root in the cities. The number of anti-demonstrators that turned out in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama, three of Syria’s four largest cities, numbered in the hundreds and not the thousands, while the pro-demonstrations in those cities were massive.
What then do the massive pro-Assad demonstrations seem to say? I suspect that many of those marching have seen too clearly what sectarian strife has done to Iraq — (there are over a million Iraqi refugees in Syria); and many may also have been unnerved by the sudden Western intervention in Libya and the threat there of civil war. They have seen that before as well. They, too, want reform: They share a conviction that Assad also wants it and were demonstrating largely against those elements who seek precisely such a descent into civil strife that will signal an end to that hope. Many Syrians may suspect that the externally promoted concept of reform may be a Trojan horse being used against Syria and the resistance axis more widely.
Assad’s address therefore was to this latter group — a group that did not exist as a majority elsewhere in the region. The pro-Assad demonstrators sought a signal of self-confidence and will, but will also now be looking to see that promised reforms do indeed materialize. Assad seems to intend that reform — the ending of the emergency laws, the lifting of restrictions on the press, and a new law to provide for a plurality of political parties — progresses rapidly. Success in this project depends crucially, of course, on the president’s ability to stem and to stop the killing of protesters, too.
If Assad succeeds — and it seems, thus far, to be heading in that direction — the calculation by some external analysts that Assad will emerge somehow weakened by greater popular participation seems improbable: Much of his personal popularity rests precisely on his foreign-policy stance, in which he has been closely aligned with popular sentiment. More probable is that Assad will emerge with his stature enhanced, and Syria will be set on a course for resuming its traditional place at the center of Arab politics. Correctly understood, a strengthened Syria offers a better prospect for resolving present regional tensions, rather than aggravating them.
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