Opposition leaders in Syria have called for mass protests today, April 1st, to christen a “Day of Martyrs.” Syrian dissent is mounting in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s preposterous speech Wednesday, in which he declared his nation besieged by an unimaginable collaboration of Americans, Zionists, and radical Islamists.
While his claim drew considerable skepticism both at home and abroad, al-Assad’s address should be interpreted as a clear demonstration of dictatorial hubris. Although his cabinet resigned, al-Assad’s priority has remained the “stability” of the nation, which can be loosely translated as martial law. Despite assurances to the contrary, he has not lifted the repressive “emergency law” that has been universally despised since it was ratified by the Ba’ath party, following their successful coup d’état. He has refused to budge on political reforms and has already demonstrated his willingness to violent stifle peaceful demonstrations. However, his determination has been matched by the opposition, as the old adage about the impossibility of peaceful protest breeding the inevitability of violent revolution echoes across the Levant.
Given the circumstances, it appears the “Day of Martyrs” will live up to its billing. Make no mistake, what is happening in Syria represents a genuine threat to the al-Assad dynasty, and the Syrian Ba’ath party. The survival of the regime will depend on the lengths to which it is willing to brutally subdue popular discontent. However, it appears increasingly likely that the embattled president must confront the reemergence of an arch-nemesis. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) is staged to turn the tide of resistance.
Banned by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and predecessor, the Brotherhood was once the country’s most powerful opposition movement. That was until February 1982 when, riding the tide of fundamentalist Islam that swept west from Iran, the country’s Muslim population rose up in opposition to the Ba’ath party’s socialist despotism. The state’s response was swift and severe. Some 10,000 to 30,000 members of the Muslim Brother were butchered in the streets of Hama by the Syrian Army. The massacre was conducted by Rifaat al-Assad, the sitting president’s own brother and Bashar’s uncle. Needless to say, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood has never forgotten the bloodletting.
Although generally wary of public resistance, the Brotherhood appears poised for a grand homecoming. Nominally a branch of the eponymous movement established in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna in the 1920s, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is an independent force that remains the most powerful underground political organization in Syria. If they are willing to support this “Day of Martyrs” the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime will intensify, drastically.
However, as tensions mount in Damascus, the view from Washington grows ever cloudier. As analysts attempt to forecast the outbreak of broader hostilities or the implications of militant Sunni Arab regime replacing al-Assad, the implications of political vacuum localized squarely between Iran and Israel are mounting. Moreover, with the notable exception of Libya, the Jasmine Revolution that swept the Middle East has mostly affected nations where the United States holds some sway, behind-the-scenes. Not so in Syria, where the repressive regime has played proxy to Iran while earning itself the dubious distinction of being named one of only four countries listed by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terror. It is a well known fact that the majority of weapons stashed across South Lebanon and Gaza were either made or supplied by Syria.
It is impossible to know whether the Syrian regime will crumble and, if it does, what type of nation would rise from the ashes. A best case scenario would certainly involve a responsible, autonomous government in Damascus, which would rob Iran of her most critical ally and presumably halt the state-sponsored patronage of organizations such as Hamas and Hizbullah.
On the other hand, it is also conceivable that a fundamentalist group could rise to power, denying Israel the paradoxical stability of a well-known foe and the West a de facto ally in the fight against radical Islam. Having watched the Muslim Brotherhood secure its foothold in Egyptian governance, Israel and the West may be forced to come to grips with the fact that they are better off with al-Assad’s secular, stable leadership than they would be without it.
For the time being, there is little anyone can do but wait and watch the protests, which have drawn tens of thousands into the streets and left at least 60 people dead. With or without the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation, Friday has been dubbed the “Day of Martyrs” for a reason.
For better or worse, all that is certain is that the United States cannot gently encourage President al-Assad’s exit, as we did with Mubarak in Cairo. It is equally clear that he is not leaving without a fight.