Ever since pro-democracy protests erupted in Syria over a month ago, President Bashar al-Assad has attempted to quell the unrest with a mixture of conciliation and confrontation, to no avail. On Tuesday, for example, the regime announced that it would repeal the country's long-standing emergency law even as it approved a provision requiring Syrians to get permission to demonstrate and cracked down violently on protesters in the city of Homs, arresting the opposition figure Mahmoud Issa. Activists are now preparing demonstrations for Friday. Here's why some analysts think Assad--who has ruled Syria with an iron grip but now faces perhaps the most serious challenge yet to his authority--is vulnerable:
- It's a National Uprising in a Digital Age Some observers wonder why Assad hasn't ruthlessly crushed the protests--which have now spread nationally, even to Damascus and Assad strongholds like Banias--once and for all. The answer, says Tony Badran at The Weekly Standard notes, could lie in new technologies like video-enabled cell phones and YouTube, which galvanize demonstrators and make it riskier for regimes to engage in brutal tactics that could invite international censure. "As the regime tailors its self-defense according to the parameters and mores of the social media age," Badran writes, "it will have to find a midway point, both brutal and controlled, manifesting the maximum amount of terror with the minimum amount of exposure. But what if it can't?"
- Assad's Approach Hasn't Worked Elsewhere "Since the uprising began, the government has vacillated between crackdown and suggestions of compromise, a formula that proved disastrous for strongmen in Tunisia and Egypt," Anthony Shadid notes at The New York Times. The regime has theoretically met many of the protesters' original demands, he notes, but those demands have grown since the uprising began, as they did in Egypt and Tunisia.
- Assad Isn't Making Meaningful Concessions Assad is more popular than the toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, Mohamad Bazzi writes at Council on Foreign Relations, but he is "squandering this political capital" by intensifying his crackdown and, like his father Hafez, refusing to cave to pressure. Bazzi says that if secular Sunnis in Damascus get off the sidelines and take to the streets then Assad's government (which is dominated by minority Alawaites) will "face a grave danger."
- Assad Faces an 'Existential Crisis' Assad is probably planning to fill coastal cities like Homs and Latakia with security forces, David Ignatius explains at The Washington Post, "but the army's presence will be challenged by protestors, creating an existential crisis for the regime: A massacre would trigger a popular uprising that would split the Syrian army and bring on a bloody combination of revolution and sectarian war." Ignatius adds that the regime's has few "credible" people to negotiate with because it's crushed the opposition for over three decades.
On CNN's In the Arena last night, Eliot Spitzer decided to analyze Assad's predicament by creating a "Despot Meter." Spitzer, explaining that he didn't want to "be frivolous about this," surmised after consulting with analysts that Assad was "bad but not as bad as they come"--better than Libya's Muammar Qaddafi but worse than Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Jamie Rubin ranked Assad an eight, while Chrystia Freeland decided to "nudge" him up to a nine. With that kind of damning assessment, Vogue's flattering, "what politics?" February profile of Assad's wife, Asma, isn't looking any better (she married an eight or a nine, after all).