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Rage in Syria?

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Following in the footsteps of Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian opposition is preparing to launch its "Day of Rage."

Inspired by the Internet-savvy Egyptian protesters, an online campaign called for anti-government demonstrations Friday and Saturday in the Syrian capital Damascus. Facebook is banned in Syria but can be accessed through proxies.

"After Friday prayers, February 4 is the first day of anger for the proud Syrian people. Comprehensive civil disobedience in all cities," reads one of the pages on Facebook, titled "The Syrian Revolution 2011."

It's not clear if the Syrian people themselves are ready to rise up and what impact these pages will actually have on the ground. But Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad, who took over from his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, has zero tolerance for protests. He runs historically the most ruthless Arab dictatorship in the region.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, believes the Syrian regime is very tough and "It will try to nip any demonstrations in the bud."

The younger Assad has not yet gone as far as his father did in responding to internal opposition in Syria. In 1982 when insurgents took to the streets in the Syrian city of Hama, Hafez Al Assad unleashed a ferocious attack in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. An estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people were killed.

The 'Hama Massacre' has been described as possibly being "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East."

Middle East expert Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University told PBS's Charlie Rose on January 31: "For about 25 years the Arab people have been terrified of their rulers and the security states have really marginalized them and demolished their sense of dignity."

Landis does not think Assad will suffer from the same fate as Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali.

"Syrians have been traumatized by the violence and chaos of Iraq. The presence of almost one million Iraqi refugees has chastened Syrians. They understand the dangers of regime collapse in a religiously divided society."

"No Syrian wants to risk civil war. Freedom in Iraq has spelled disaster for the country's minorities, both Sunnis and Christian. Iraq provides a cautionary tale for Syria's minorities in particular."

Let's not underestimate the power of the people. After 23 years, nobody expected the Tunisian people to overthrow Ben Ali and his authoritarian regime.

According to Assad, the domino effect with unrest spreading from Egypt and Tunisia to Syria is unlikely in Syria because his country is different.

"Syria is stable. Why?" Mr. Assad told the WSJ, "Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue."

He claims his people will not revolt against him because his anti-American position and confrontation with Israel have endeared him with the grassroots in Syria.

Chatham House's Middle East Expert, Nadim Shehadi, says the Syrian President is in denial.

"Syria has been under emergency laws since 1963 and the excuse has always been the conflict with Israel. I am not sure how much the population still buys these arguments."

He adds: "In fact the Assad regime bears the most similarities to that of Saddam Hussein and there was also solace that things are so bad in Iraq that nobody in Syria would even think of toppling him. This kind of reasoning is so last week, I am sure most Arab leaders are reviewing their story and how they assert their legitimacy to their population."

Assad is also talking reform. But how seriously can we take him?

With 32 percent of the Syrian population living on $2 a day or less, the Syrian government announced on January 17th, a $250 million aid plan to help 420,000 impoverished families.

On the political front, the Syrian president also promised to push through political reforms this year for municipal elections, grant more power to non-governmental organizations and establish a new media law.

Can true democracy prevail in the Middle East? Nobody knows. After over half a century of tyranny, one thing is for sure: the Arab people will no longer accept what they used to accept and will no longer remain silent.