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Stakes high as Syria protests unfold

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, facing the gravest challenge of his 11 years in power, has tried repression, economic handouts and promises of reform to quell an unprecedented month-long wave of popular protests.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2011 12:20 IST

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, facing the gravest challenge of his 11 years in power, has tried repression, economic handouts and promises of reform to quell an unprecedented month-long wave of popular protests.

Yet the unrest, which rights groups say has cost more than 200 lives, including 17 on Monday, shows no sign of abating.

Assad and his father before him have ruled Syria under a tough emergency law in force since 1963, bolstered by the Baath party, the military and an array of fearsome security agencies.

While the Syrians demanding freedom seem far from dislodging Assad, no Arab ruler can feel secure in a region electrified by the swift fall of autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia this year.

Following are some scenarios of what could happen in Syria and the risks and opportunities they would present:

Assad keeps power, enacts reform
Conceivably, the Syrian president may decide to bend with the wind and implement far-reaching reform. But protesters will want proof the 45-year-old leader can make a real break with the past. Previously he has resisted political reform.

Assad's problem is that dismantling the apparatus of repression, enshrining the rule of law to defeat corruption or allowing new parties to challenge his Baath party would remove the props of his power with no guarantees of political survival.

Protest movement is crushed
Nearly 30 years ago, Assad's father ruthlessly put down an armed Islamist uprising, killing thousands of people in the city of Hama in military operations cloaked from international view.

That degree of violence would be harder to get away with today.

Yet security forces led by Assad relatives and allies have shown few qualms in detaining dissidents or using batons, bullets and tear gas on protesters.

Hanging tough seems the likeliest default option for an embattled Assad.

Assad quits or is overthrown
Regime change remains a long shot, although the persistence of protests despite bloody crackdowns has shortened the odds that Assad might buckle.

What might come next - a peaceful transition of power, a military coup, prolonged instability or civil war - is anyone's guess. Anti-Assad demonstrators have stressed national unity rather than narrower identities, and many have called only for reform rather than regime change. But with his fall, Syria would enter the unknown and long-hidden strains could surface.