One of the subtexts of the anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, and the beginning of a Syrian military withdrawal from the country, is what this will mean for the Syrian regime in the future. Will Bashar Assad survive? In Amman and Riyadh, I hear, they recently gave the regime only a few months more, and that was before the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the start of the Lebanese crisis.
In Damascus on Thursday, some 200-300 critics of the Syrian regime (I'm taking the figure from the more detailed Arabic version of the English article linked here, published in the Beirut daily Al-Nahar) gathered at the invitation of the National Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Fundamental Freedoms and Human Rights. While the numbers were small, the protestors showed considerable courage in that they were set upon by pro-government mobs using sticks, and by police. Several people, including women, were beaten, in what was, in fact, an unusual display of violence. In the recent past the Syrian authorities had been careful to avoid the overt use of force.
The slogans thrown up by each side said a great deal. Here's what the pro-Bashar crowd chanted: "Death to America, death to Israel; Oh America, put away your dogs, the Syrian people are not scared of you." "America, out! Out!" "Oh Bush, you pig." "Oh God Almighty, protect the leader Bashar." "Oh Bush, where are you? Where are you? Bashar puts you to shame"; or its variation, "...Hassan Nasrallah puts you to shame."
The protestors, on the other hand, sang this: "No to fear and terrorism." "No to discrimination in all its forms." "No to [religious] sectarianism." "Yes to reform from inside." "Yes to freedoms and to a free country." "No to corruption, unemployment and the lack of opportunity." "In favor of a free and democratic Syria."
While liberty starts with a step, it might be a fairly large step to presume today that the Syrian regime is most threatened by its domestic liberals. Unfortunately, the likelihood is that if the regime were ousted, it would probably be ousted, at least in a first phase, by its own--alarmed at what a hash the Assads and their cousins, the Makhloufs, have made of things, both in Lebanon and internationally.
One should also observe the pragmatism of the Syrian business class. The Assads and Makhloufs are not indispensable to its survival, and any movement away from the regime will have to pass through the private sector at some stage. With the economy searching for a lifeline, and privatization and banking reforms hardly advancing at all, there is surely disgruntlement there. I'm not suggesting a coup is in the offing (who knows?), but the pillars of the Assad regime are eroding: the Alawites are worried; the business class, particularly Sunnis, were disturbed by the Hariri assassination and are, clearly, making less money today; and the political elite as a whole may soon lose a very profitable venture in Lebanon.
The months ahead will be interesting.