Middle East

Syria: Assad regime looks to bolster itself

A pro-government protester in Damascus, 29 March 2011
Image caption Large numbers of people have attended pro-Assad rallies

As it faces its gravest internal challenge for nearly three decades, President Bashar al-Assad's Baathist regime has been shoring up its position with displays of domestic and outside support.

As part of a carefully choreographed scenario to take the steam out of the protests that have shaken the country for more than 10 days, Prime Minister Muhammad Naji Otari also tendered the resignation of his government, which has been in place since 2003.

The step had been expected, and was seen as an effort to show that changes are being set in motion to meet demands that some Syrian officials have acknowledged as "legitimate".

The new government will be in charge of implementing a reform programme aimed at defusing the crisis

Just how tangible and significant those promised changes turn out to be could become clearer when President Assad addresses parliament on Wednesday with his first public speech since the crisis broke out.

Emergency laws

His Vice-President, Farouq al-Sharaa, has said Mr Assad's speech will "reassure all the sons of the people".

The president is expected to flesh out the announcements made last Thursday promising sweeping reforms that, if implemented, would end the monopoly of the Baath Party, halt oppression and install civil, political and press liberties.

Part of the focus is likely to be on the emergency law that has been in place since the Baath Party came to power in 1963, under which security and intelligence forces have unbridled powers of arrest, detention and surveillance, and enjoy immunity from prosecution for abuses.

Officials have said the regime is planning to shelve the law.

But opposition activists and critics suspect that the emergency measures will not be scrapped unless other laws on combating terrorism - which could turn out to be equally draconian and invasive - are in place.

'Loyalty to the homeland'

In the meantime, the regime has been bolstering itself by highlighting shows of support.

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of people massed in central squares in Damascus, Aleppo and other towns and cities, waving Syrian flags and pictures of Mr Assad, and chanting slogans supporting him.

"Allah (God), Syria, Bashar, and that's all!" was one of the most prominent refrains.

The officially encouraged demonstrations were portrayed in the state media as a displays of "loyalty to the homeland", support for "the reform programme led by Bashar al-Assad", and rejection of the "conspiracy to undermine Syria's security, stability and national unity".

However staged they may have been, there was no doubting the huge numbers attending. State media said there were millions.

The rallies were far bigger than those put on by the embattled Tunisian and Egyptian leaders earlier this year to demonstrate that they enjoyed massive popular support.

They clearly did not, and they were ousted.

Mr Assad's regime has also been able to point to a flurry of outside backing, which the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders were denied.

Syrian state media played up phone calls of support to Mr Assad from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the rulers of Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, and the president of Iraq.

Damascus has also been calling in debts from the allies it sponsors in the region, drawing expressions of support from Palestinian and Lebanese beneficiaries of Syrian patronage.

Syria's resistance to Israeli and American pressures and championing of the Palestinian cause is standing it in good stead as it faces essentially the same kind of domestic challenge that unseated the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia, and which is now shaking Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and others.

Frustrated reformer?

It has also allowed Damascus to portray the challenge as a plot to undermine its steadfastness by sowing unrest and provoking sectarian discord, a spectre that has been raised by the trouble in a Sunni-majority country where power is largely in the hands of Mr Assad's Alawite minority.

Image caption Prime Minister Muhammad Naji Otari has tendered the resignation of his government

Scores of people have been killed and hundreds of others wounded since the disturbances broke out in the southern city of Deraa nearly two weeks ago.

That mainly Sunni city has remained in revolt, despite official promises to address local demands.

Unrest and violence have spread to nearby towns and villages, and the past few days have seen serious trouble in the north-western port of Latakia and other places, largely blamed by officials on "armed gangs" and outside instigators.

Mr Assad's speech on Wednesday should give some indication of whether the regime is serious about tackling the social, economic and political grievances underlying the disturbances, or whether, reassured by displays of officially inspired mass support, it will fall back on decades-old verities and tighten the security clampdown to stifle dissent.

One theory that may also be clarified is that Mr Assad is a frustrated reformer whose own position vis-a-vis the Baath Party old guard and even some of his own close family members may actually have been strengthened by the unrest.

Mr Assad assumed power in 2000 on the death of his father Hafez, who ruled with an iron hand since 1970.

In 2001, Bashar al-Assad allowed the first stirrings of political liberalisation in a "Damascus Spring", but it was soon suppressed amid signs of disapproval by regime hard-liners.