Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is scheduled to address his people tomorrow afternoon, one day after sacking his cabinet in the wake of increasingly bloody nationwide protests. Speculation is rampant on Twitter, Facebook, and the media about what al-Assad is likely to say. In my view, he has two broad options:
- He can play the blame game that Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qadhafi played before him (and that some of his advisors indulged in over the past couple weeks), pointing the finger at meddlesome outside forces who were intent on disturbing the peace in Syria.
- Or, he can address some of the protestors’ grievances. The question here is, of course, how far is he willing to go?
My sense is that Bashar is likely to try to “shoot the moon”, as he has done at other moments of pressure and instability. Anyone who has followed his political career over the past decade can attest to the following qualities of Bashar’s governing style:
- He tends to cultivate a reputation as a bit of a maverick, making counter-intuitive choices that keep his opponents guessing, and which have gotten Syria out of several tight spots.
- While the regime has a reputation for being conservative and not gambling in its strategic choices, it can be induced to move rather quickly when stability is at stake. In 2005, Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon was carried out far more quickly than anyone could have imagined, and proved to be a winning decision (despite looking like a dangerous capitulation by a weak and untested young president, at the time). Similarly, following a period of intense hardball in Lebanon from 2006-08, Bashar turned around abruptly and announced to the world that Syria had reached an advanced stage in its peace negotiations with Israel. His allies and opponents were befuddled; that, I think, was the point.
- He relishes catering to a wealth of audiences; think of his simultaneous courtship of European powers and the U.S., the ‘moderate’ Sunni Arab regimes and Iran, etc. When at all possible, he likes to keep his options open.
- The critical thing to note, however, is that most of his riskier gambits have taken place in the sphere of regional politics. Al-Assad has yet to take any real risks on the domestic political scene. The experimental reform period dubbed the “Damascus Spring” was short-lived, and there have been few real attempts to liberalize the country’s political arena since then.
So what can we expect from Bashar in his speech tomorrow? I could very easily be mistaken, but my sense is that we’re approaching another one of those moments where he tries to throw his critics off balance by going beyond the conservative and expected response. I would be surprised, in fact, if he does not declare the emergency law lifted and/or permit the formation of opposition parties. He may also promise compensation for the families of those killed in protests and launch an “investigation” into the events that led to the “security incidents”.
Anything less than such an aggressive response is likely to be too little to assuage the growing mass of critics. I think al-Assad knows that, and he’s going to try to pull another rabbit out of a hat.