Bashar al-Assad: Another Unwitting Architect of Violent Escalation


This April, President Bashar al-Assad ushered in reforms that once-upon-a-time in Syria would have been cause for great celebration. Instead, tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets against these measures, furiously demanding the fall of the al-Assad regime. Their discontent was met with the bloodiest crackdown to date that left at least 81 people dead, further fanning the flame of unrest.

The dance is a grim one, and the situation in Syria is likely to get much worse before it gets better.

Does this sound familiar? Like almost every other authoritarian leader in the Middle East who has faced a protest movement in 2011, al-Assad's heavy-handed response to demonstrations has served to escalate the movement. Demands have become bolder, the number of protesters has grown, and unrest has spread to new parts of the country. Realizing the gravity of the challenge to his rule, al-Assad has nervously intensified crackdowns, fueling the cycle of escalation in a predictable manner.

The pattern was established months ago. When Tunisians began demonstrating in late 2010, their demands were similarly socioeconomic. Citizens wanted jobs, higher wages, and a reduction in the costs of living. But by the time former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali announced the creation of 30,000 new jobs in mid-January – after weeks of police brutality and violence – the game had changed. Following his address, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital to demand the resignation of Ben Ali.

Similarly, the original demands of the January 25th protests in Egypt were: an increase in minimum wage, the lifting of the emergency law, the dismissal of Interior Minister Habib El-Adly, and a limit on presidential terms. But in the showdown between protesters and security forces on that day, demands once again escalated. Soon, calls for the fall of the regime became popular refrain in Tahrir Square, and each of Hosni Mubarak's attempts at damage control – whether meek concessions or bizarre violence – were met with greater levels of outrage.

Bashar al-Assad has locked Syria into this same cycle through the clumsy handling of his own crisis, much to the disappointment of analysts who noted the reformist potential he once held and his opportunity to learn from the mistakes that Ben Ali and Mubarak made. Major reforms like the ones introduced last week are no longer enough to appease protesters who vow to continue until al-Assad is out of power. Although many note that demonstrations in Syria have not reached the critical mass that proved successful in Tunisia and Egypt, they have undoubtedly grown in size and spread throughout the country. Most troublingly, al-Assad has failed to leave himself an escape route, having made painfully clear to citizens that any concessions he makes will be token. By issuing ultimatums, he has also left protesters no way out of this predicament.

If al-Assad had taken cues from other uprisings, he may have realized that "smart" dictators can handle unrest in one of two ways.

First, de-escalation is possible, based upon the speed and content of a leader's response to protesters' demands, and – more importantly – the level of violence employed. In Morocco, for example, protesters are still chanting, "the people demand reform of the regime" rather than the fall. Why? King Mohammed VI (who is hardly a dictator, but has nevertheless dealt with his own protest movement) addressed the demands of protesters before these demands had an opportunity to escalate, pledging in early March that he would undertake comprehensive constitutional reform. His road map for reform contained some detailed measures, making the content of his response reassuring. Moroccan police forces have yet to resort to egregious violence in order to contain protesters; while Colonel Gadaffi bombarded his citizens with heavy artillery, Mohammed VI's security forces have used their batons sparingly.

The second response of "smart" dictators is to indeed escalate the conflict to levels of violence that instill fear in the populace and to send a clear message that the regime's use of power is non-negotiable by refusing to make concessions. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, for example, has made the cost of civil disobedience so high and established itself as so uncompromising that, in the short term, he has successfully curbed the country's protest campaigns. The Bahraini monarchy has also employed severe violence without offering any concessions to protesters besides the initiation of dialogue. Morality aside, the "my way or the highway" mentality does control and sometimes even quiet unrest.

It is too late for al-Assad to act shrewdly? His botched response has escalated unrest in Syria while failing to control it. Whether he will be deposed will depend on a number of factors, most notably Syria's important regional ties. One can be sure, though, that there is nowhere for tensions, bloodshed, and demands in Syria to go but up.

Photo Credit: Sarah Grebowski