Recently I wrote the following in a Tech Central Station column:
Anti-regime protests in Syria were unthinkable just a few weeks ago. They aren’t any more, not because Syria is more open to dissent than other Middle Eastern countries — it’s arguably the most oppressive state in the region now that Saddam’s regime has been dismantled — but because the Lebanese protests and Assad’s cringing response prove he is far more vulnerable than almost everyone thought. He doesn’t win every battle. He can lose and his enemies don’t even have to fire a shot. This is news in Lebanon, and it is news in Syria. If he loses the showdown in Beirut — and he’s well on his way to doing just that — he might find he’s facing one in Damascus.
And so it comes to pass. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution is reverberating powerfully inside Syria. If the Baath regime falls in Damascus as it did in Beirut, chalk Syria up as a domino.
Beset by U.S. attempts to isolate his country and facing popular expectations of change, Syrian President Bashar Assad will move to begin legalizing political parties, purge the ruling Baath Party, sponsor free municipal elections in 2007 and formally endorse a market economy, according to officials, diplomats and analysts…
Emboldened opposition leaders, many of whom openly support pressure by the United States even if they mistrust its intentions, said the measures were the last gasp of a government staggering after its hasty and embarrassing troop withdrawal last month from neighboring Lebanon.
The debate over the changes comes during a remarkable surge in what constitutes dissent in this country of 18 million. For the first time in years, opposition figures and even government allies are openly speculating on the fate of a party that, in some fashion, has ruled Syria since 1963 in the name of Arab nationalism, and today faces perhaps its greatest crisis.
Whatever connection exists between a rising imperfect democracy in Iraq and a renascent democratic movement in Lebanon is debatable and indirect at best. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad didn’t trigger the upheaval in Beirut. The assasination of Rafik Hariri did. Still, when the U.S. ordered Bashar Assad to withdraw Syrian troops he said “I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to cooperate.” He did. Now he’s screwed.
Syria’s dissidents are skeptical about the Baath regime’s sincerity, as they should be. That way they’ll keep the pressure on. Dictatorships (particularly of the Soviet and Latin American varieties) have been known to insincerely reform themselves out of existence. Assad doesn’t have to like it. But he or one of his successors will eventually have to do it or face a rude retirement on somebody else’s schedule and terms.
UPDATE: If you want a perspective from inside Lebanon on how much American support helped the Cedar Revolution, read this post at the Lebanese Political Journal.