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Mideast heavyweight Syria under pressure as protests continue

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Iran, is a key strategic player in the Middle East. Analysts think that if continuing protests threaten his rule, it could also affect the peace process with Israel.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad until now had a tight grip on power in Syria

Syria's repressive leadership has come under heavy pressure as it tries to stifle growing protests among its population with a brutal crackdown. The opposition, which is calling for democratic reforms, is centered in the southern city of Deraa, close to the border with Jordan.

The city has been the scene of violent clashes in recent days with security forces this week firing live rounds at protesters at a mosque which has become the focal point of continuing unrest.

The death toll remains unclear. The Syrian government says six people were killed, local hospital authorities speak of 25 dead government opponents while the opposition insists hundreds of people have died in recent weeks.

Syrian protesters in the southern city of deraa

The southern city of Deraa has been rocked by violent clashes

What remains clear however is that the "Arab spring," now poses a major challenge to Bashar al-Assad who took office in 2000 on the death of his father President Hafiz. Syria has clearly joined the growing list of Arab countries being shaken by popular uprisings calling for change and reform.

"The regime in Damascus can't resist this trend," Udo Steinbach from the Center for Middle East Studies at Marburg university in Germany said.

President with staying power

But some analysts believe that the youngest scion of Syria's ruling dynasty will be able to ride out the current storm of protests.

Andre Bank from the Giga Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg said that Bashar al-Assad was currently "firmly in the driver's seat" and remained relatively popular among young Syrians unlike authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt.

"Until now, people have always made a distinction between the president and the old elite," Bank said. He pointed out that Assad would become the target of anti-government demonstrators, much like Ben Ali, Mubarak or Yemen's President Saleh, only if this distinction blurred. "Then it would open the flood gates in a way that's unknown in Syrian history," he said.

Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafiz al-Assad, seized power in 1971 through a coup. He ruled the country with an iron grip and draconian state of emergency laws. Many experts believed that after Hafiz handed over the reins to his son Bashar, the latter would pave the way for a "Damascus spring" and usher in political and economic reform.

A poster of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus

Many Syrians hoped for reforms when Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000

But instead Bashar, who trained as an ophthalmologist and studied in London to become an eye doctor, opted to stick to the old system and its entrenched ways and continued to suppress the opposition with the help of Syria's dreaded security forces.

Syria's economic prospects haven't improved much under Bashar al-Assad either. The country's youth unemployment rate is estimated to stand at 20 percent.

Mideast expert Udo Steinbach said the reasons for the current demonstrations can be found "in economic frustration, corruption and a lack of participation."

He said much of that discontent was found in places far removed from Damascus where people had suffered from a long famine and were struggling with extreme economic hardships. But, he said, protests were also simmering in urban centers such as Homs and Allepo.

Alawi support and alliance with Iran

An additional factor is that much power is concentrated in the hands of al-Assad's minority Alawi sect. The Shiite minority holds all the important posts in the ruling Baath party, military the intelligence and secret service, to the resentment of many in the Sunni majority community.

"The Alawis can be crucial for the survival of the regime," Andre Bank said. "Unlike in Egypt, the Syrian military and the secret service wouldn't take a stand against Bashar al-Assad," he said. "That's because the end of al-Assad would mean their end too."

Apart from the unity of the Alawi minority, Syria's dynastic dictatorship also builds on its close ties to Iran.

Andre Bank points out that the alliance between Damascus and Tehran was a product of the late 1970s and early 1980s meant to dampen the influence of then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein had attacked Iran a year after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and triggered a war between the two countries. Hafiz al-Assad firmly threw his weight behind Tehran in order to weaken his Iraqi arch rival from the pan-Arabic Baath party.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

A strategic alliance - Bashar al-Assad with Iranian President Ahmadinejad

But some analysts argue that with the collapse of the Saddam regime, the value of the Iran-Syria alliance has vanished.

But Udo Steinbach warns that al-Assad's administration can currently no longer count on support from Shia Muslim Iran.

"This alliance is an alliance of regimes not of people," Steinbach said. "It never became a warm mutual friendship considering that in Syria, 80 percent of the population are Sunnis."

Experts say that in light of the current events, there's no likelihood of Iran intervening in Syria's internal conflict.

Syria may well have been a "bridge to the Arab world for decades," Steinbach said but he added that not only was there little wiggle room for Iran to attack Syria, but the move wouldn't be in the interests of Iran's spiritual Shiite leadership.

Repercussions for Mideast peace

Much now depends on how al-Assad deals with the escalating protests in Syria. His government has already announced a series of reforms, including a salary increase for public workers, greater freedom for the news media and political parties and a reconsideration of the emergency rule that has been in place for 48 years.

But analysts say that if the reforms fail to appease demonstrators and Bashar al-Assad is overthrown, it would have serious repercussions for the Middle East peace process.

"Governments with democratic legitimacy - whether in Cairo or Damascus - would have a much greater claim in being part of the peace process," Steinbach said.

It would also exert huge pressure on Israel to get back to the negotiating table. Many Arab rulers in past years, Steinbach said, have been waiting and watching to see which way the wind blows and haven't really challenged Israel.

Andre Bank said the government in Jerusalem is following events in Damascus closely given that the situation is hugely ambivalent for the Jewish state.

"On the one hand, they would surely like to see a more Israel-friendly government in Damascus,” Bank said. “But on the other hand, a regime change would bring instability that could even lead to a civil war."

Author: Dominik Peters (sp)
Editor: Michael Knigge

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