Is Syria the next domino?

With autocratic regimes tumbling around the region, well-educated young Syrians want – and deserve – a taste of freedom.

Druze Mark The Anniversary Of 1981 Israeli Annexation Of Golan Plateau
A Druze boy wears a Syrian army uniform to mark the anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. But reliance on united support against the old enemy will not save the military rulers from their own people [GALLO/GETTY]

With the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes gone and street protests roiling cities from Algiers to Tehran, many people are now wondering which domino might fall next. Syria, whose secular, militarised dictatorship most closely resembles the fallen regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, may not be next in line – but appears nonetheless to be approaching a tipping point.

Of course, the old “domino theory” of international relations was merely a crude way of emphasising that different parts of any region are linked to each other. For today’s Arab world, a better metaphor might be a chessboard, from which the removal of even a pawn inevitably alters the relationships among all other pieces.

Today, as protests mount and multiply, the government of every Arab state in the Middle East and North Africa probably believes that, if left to its own devices, it can contain internal dissent.

In Syria, it seems inevitable that protest may soon crack the regime’s brittle political immobility. Most ordinary Syrians face extremely difficult economic and social conditions, including high unemployment, rising food prices, constraints on personal freedom, and endemic corruption. These factors are no different from those that brought people to the streets in North Africa and the Middle East. What began as protests over living conditions became full-scale demands for freedom and democracy.

Rightly fearful

The regime in Damascus is fearful of similar unrest, as it should be. The best way to avoid a confrontation between the people and the security forces is a process of genuine reform leading to elections and a government of national unity. The ingrained inertia of the current regime, however, seems to preclude any early move toward that.

Instead, Syria’s rulers are offering inducements to ensure key constituencies remain in line – laptops for teachers, subsidies for public-sector workers, and empty reformist rhetoric. But the current situation calls for far more serious measures. Lifting the state of emergency that has been in force since 1963 – which has granted sweeping powers to the regime and its security services – would be both a symbolic and tangible step in the right direction.

Unless Syria’s rulers, like other leaders in the Arab world, begin to appreciate that freedom is a fundamental human right, even the most quiescent people’s patience may wear dangerously thin. High food prices may have served as a trigger in North Africa, but the speed with which the protesters turned their attention to political reform caught everyone off guard.

Putting this genie back in its bottle would be virtually impossible without bloodshed of the type we are now witnessing in some parts of the Arab world. So the Syrian leadership knows that it must respond – hence the half-hearted reform agenda that it recently outlined. But trying to address deep-rooted popular grievances with flowery language and a bouquet of subsidies is like trying to extinguish a forest fire with a water pistol. The solutions to Syria’s problems must be as substantive as the problems are serious.

Requiring more than sloganeering

Until now, Syria’s rulers have relied on their anti-Israel, anti-Western rhetoric to protect themselves. But cries about the Israel-Palestine conflict were rarely heard in the protests in Tunis and Cairo. Furthermore, in the past few years, when Israeli planes struck targets in Syria, there was no answer from the regime – and still none when Israeli planes flew over the presidential palace.

The regime claims that it is part of the ‘resistance’ with its senior partner Iran. However, the WikiLeaks cables show that the Syrian leadership told the Iranian regime not to count on it in any war with Israel because it is too weak. So the regime is making a fatal error if it thinks that its old diversionary tactics will continue to provide it with immunity. On the contrary, with a young, well-educated population unable to find suitable work, the regime has created its own cadre of potential protestors, who are aware that it is using empty slogans to keep the state of emergency and stay in power.

The Syrian people are strong, patient, resilient and resourceful. Family and social bonds remain potent in the face of adversity. When food is scarce, people share. When the regime cracks down on the internet, people use proxy servers.

But they should not have to make do. They should not have to risk their safety when they seek to engage with the world online. No one wants to see the streets of Damascus consumed in protest – or a violent confrontation erupt between protesters and security forces. What the Syrian people want is a meaningful dialogue with the regime.

The regime must appreciate that, despite its best efforts, Syrians have been watching events in the region with as much interest as the rest of the world. Syria’s people may have no predilection for violence – but the birth of freedom, once witnessed, is not easily forgotten – or trumped by state handouts and vacuous statements by a distant, self-isolated leadership.

People said the Berlin Wall would not fall. They said that Mubarak would not stand down. And still some say that Syria cannot change. But Syria will change, and I, like my compatriots, pray that when change comes, it is peaceful and harmonious.

Ribal al-Assad is Director of the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria.

This article was first published by Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.