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James Denselow

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Assad Looks to Syria's Silent Majority

Posted: 06/21/11 04:44 PM ET

Assad will hope that it's not three strikes and out after his latest attempt to halt the momentum of protests.

Bashar al-Assad did not apologize for the events of the past few months that have left over 1,500 dead. Instead, he attempted to reassure Syria's silent majority that he is the caring paternal figure that can guide the state in the right direction by cleansing the country of 'germs,' protect against external conspiracy and continue his version of a reform process.

As opposed to the talkative Gaddafi who has made regular appearances or statements over the past months, Assad has only appeared three times to speak to the Syrian public. At each occasion the embattled president has offered concessions that include abolishing the emergency law, granting citizenship to thousands of stateless Kurds and giving incentives to conservative Islamic groups.

However, so far he has proved unable to halt or reverse the gathering momentum of active opposition against his regime.

Over 10,000 Syrian refugees are now in Turkey, with thousands more reportedly being prevented from leaving the country. Two Friday's ago there were protests and demonstrations in 138 towns and cities across Syria and clearly this Friday's reaction to today's speech will be a key barometer as to its success in the eyes of the Syrian silent majority who have yet to come on the streets.

Assad's latest attempt to diffuse events includes a plethora of incentives including a national dialogue that will feed into a new electoral law, a new parliament and potentially a new constitution. Amnesty was offered to those without blood on their hands and committees will be tasked with improving the media in the country and to look into ways of reducing corruption and, paradoxically enough for the son of the former president, nepotism.

With Russia protecting Syria's back at a reluctant UN Security Council, this speech was one clearly designed for a domestic audience and hopes that promising future reform and warning of immediate crisis will win over the restive population.

Its focus on the economy was of particular interest. Assad's 'Chinese Model' of economic reform and political stability, has been severely dented by the protests. Tourism has flat lined and there has been a 34% drop in the value of the country's stock market. According to members of the Syrian opposition who spoke in London last week, oil exports, valued at some $7-8 million a day, are what is keeping the country afloat. Regardless of their political intentions the vast majority of Syrians will be hurting as the country's economy contracts, and Assad's speech was clear in its message that if the 64,400 'outlaws' keep demonstrating then they are responsible for that economic hurt. Assad is less interested in reconciling to what he sees as more hard line protestors and is focusing on the vast majority of the population who are caught between the courage of the protests and a traditional fear of the regime and/or what alternative exists to it.

Another aspect of the speech that would chime to the Syrian domestic audience is the theme of conspiracy. While this is considered standard rhetoric for authoritarian leaders in the West, there has long been the culture of conspiracy in Syria and it will be embedded into the national psyche. Of course the country has plenty of evidence to support this narrative; it has been at both cold and hot war with Israel for decades and has seen the devastating consequences of Western intervention in its Eastern neighbour. With a controlled press and education system the power of nightmares that that regime have harnessed should not be underestimated.

This speech was Assad's third swing of the bat in attempting to bring order to Syria. Much of the personal legitimacy that he had at the start of the year has been squandered as the death toll and tales of repression continued to mount. If this Friday's expected protests show that his words are not as important as his security forces deeds, then the Assad regime is in genuine danger of being replaced.

 

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