They say it is impossible, but Syrians may yet uproot Assad

Only a week ago, no-one was willing to put good money on the chances of Syria being the next Arab state to be engulfed by pro-democracy demonstrations. "Assad and his clan have a firm hand on all the levers of power," said one very senior official, "I don't see that changing very soon, though of course the people there are not happy." "Assad and his family are in firm control of every organ of state security and the army," said another Israeli official, "and they won't be releasing that control any time in the foreseeable future."

Until this week, the very notion of an effective opposition in Syria seemed outlandish. For over 40 years, the Assad family has ruled Syria with a fist of iron, aided by the Baath Party and his Alawite minority, and any hopes of a more liberal form of government following the accession of Bashar Al-Assad to his father Hafez's throne in 2000 receded long ago. The secret arrests, executions and repression of every form of dissent have continued unabated, driving the leaders of the nascent opposition - at least, those not in prison - into silent submission or exile.

The revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and the stirrings in other Arab nations only brought about an all-round tightening of the reins, and one empty gesture: Syrian web-surfers were for the first time last month given access to Facebook. But those who were brave enough could already access Facebook through proxy
foreign internet servers.

Israel and the Western governments have not realigned their Syrian policy in any way. They still believe in carefully engaging the Assad regime in the hope of gradually pulling Syria out of Iran's orbit and breaking the axis that links Tehran to Hizbollah in Lebanon. So far, a policy that has borne no fruits. But still, no-one has thought of any alternative to Assad. The small demonstrations in Damascus and other cities were ruthlessly dispersed and easily dismissed.

This week though, the much more intense street battles in the key town of Deraa, on the main highway to Damascus and which included the burning of the local Baath headquarters, may signal a turning point.

They show a population not afraid to confront the security forces, even though they are quick to shoot and kill. Taken together with the less-reported demonstrations in the Kurdish areas near the border with Turkey, these may be the first signs of a more general uprising.

Assad has everything to lose. His family and clan are feared and hated by the majority of Syrians and the rule of fear is the only thing keeping them in power and in control of the country's economy. His father had no compunction in putting down a revolt in the city of Hamma in 1982, at the cost of 20,000 civilian lives. His son may try to do the same, although with today's media, it would be much more difficult to keep such actions under wraps for long. Assad may also try to use Hizbollah and other proxies in Lebanon to foment unrest on the Israeli border and divert attention from his troubles.

People power in Damascus is still a long way off. The protests could peter out under the relentless pressure of repression by secret police and overt police violence. A re-run of the Hamma bloodbath is not out of the question either but, at the end of this week, Assad the Second will be sitting a lot less comfortably on his Baathist throne.

    Last updated: 12:44pm, March 24 2011