April 15th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

Showdown in Syria: will Friday protests force Assad's hand?

Editor's Note: Robert Baer is a former Middle East CIA field officer and TIME.com's intelligence columnist.  He is also the author of See No EvilThe Devil We Know and The Company We Keep.

By Robert Baer in TIME

Syria could very well learn its fate this Friday. According to a source from the country with close ties to the regime, if large-scale demonstrations break out after midday prayer in Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, the regime will be faced with a stark choice: either crack down with unlimited violence, or meet the demonstrators' demands. In either case, Syria is looking into an abyss....

What's really rattled the President is the fact that the demonstrations have turned decidedly sectarian. The demonstrators are laying all Syria's problems, from corruption to unemployment, at the feet of the Alawites — the sect that Assad and his family belong to. The Alawites, who are an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, make up only 12% to 14% of Syria's population, yet they have ruled Syria for more than 40 years, thanks to a tight grip on the military and security services.

The complaint most widely voiced by the demonstrators is corruption. But although the Alawites are a party to the problem, the Sunni elite enjoys its fair share. The real trouble between the Sunnis and the Alawites is that Sunni fundamentalists consider Alawites heretics, unqualified to govern a Muslim country like Syria.

Assad is hamstrung by the idea of relaxing his autocratic rule because the only group organized and popular enough to benefit from such a Syrian perestroika is the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which Damascus believes is fomenting trouble from enclaves in neighboring Lebanon. In fact, according to my friend, Syria last year considered using armed forces against Tripoli to clear out the Brotherhood in that Lebanese city.

The sporadic clashes this week between protesters and security forces in the coastal town of Baniyas have only fueled the regime's fears. Baniyas has long been known as a hotbed for Islamic militants, and it could turn volatile, because weapons are easily smuggled across the porous border with Lebanon. The Islamist theme has thus been sounded from the very beginning of the uprising. Dara'a, the town where the original demonstrations broke out, is also known for its conservative Sunni politics.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Robert Baer.

Read more at TIME.

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Topics: Middle East • Perspectives • Revolution • Security • Syria

soundoff (One Response)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    I have a question to Robert Baer !
    Is there an interdependence betweem Bashar al Assad and the Alawites of the Baath party? Does Assad need his folks to stay in power? The Alawites do they need somebody like Assad, someone educated in the West as a figurehead? Is there anyone at all, that they can project, if Assad were to go?

    April 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Reply

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