With the Opposition Divided, What Will Syria’s post-Assad Fate Be?

Despite mass protests, a turning point in the Syrian struggle is not near, as fear of the regime keeps inhibiting the opposition.

If the number of protesters was to determine the fate of Assad, then Friday’s protests indicated a new boiling point in Syria, as close to half a million people took to the streets in the city of Hama, and thousands protested in different neighborhoods in Halab, the economic capital of the state. There were also protests in many other cities including Daraa, Idleb, Homs, and even in the neighborhood of Al Maze in Damascus. The number of those killed on Friday reached more than 25 and hundreds were injured while clashing with Syrian security forces and thugs drafted by Syrian intelligence.

However, these large numbers of protesters still struggle to instigate the turning point the opposition is striving for: ridding Syria of the Assad regime and its leaders. It is true that fear of the regime - a fear that for decades has allowed the Assad family to strengthen and maintain its power - is disappearing, but it is still a factor that inhibits the protesters’ and opposition’s struggle. The fact protests are not being held in all major Syrian cities is one  indicators of this. For example, Damascus is still relatively calm, and “The Aleppo Volcano” demonstration which was supposed to break out on Friday let off plenty of steam but did not erupt with the quantity of lava the opposition had hoped for.

pro-Assad Syria - AP - 1.7.11

The regime still has public support, especially among the middle and upper classes - hundreds of thousands of clerks employed by the government, merchants and the army - who, despite a number of deserters, remain unified. On Friday, the regime sent out tens of thousands of demonstrators expressing support of Assad and his rule, and when viewing filmed interviews with participants, it appears they were not all recruits of the regime. The vast military deployment, primarily in the southern city of Daraa and the northern province of Adleb, the roadblocks in Haleb, Homs and Damascus, and the opening of fire on protesters are all playing their part.

The opposition and protest movements are finding it hard to unite their struggle. Despite their common goal of establishing a democratic state which advocates human rights, there are many divisions among opponents of the regime both within Syria and among the Syrian emigrants, and the representatives of Syrian factions who advance differing agendas. An example of this division is in the harsh criticism against the gathering of intellectuals in Damascus that took place last week, who requested to establish a dialogue with the regime and apply deepening reforms without demanding Assad’s departure. In contrast, Syrian emigrants united by the loose framework of the Local Coordination Committee, a group that has been tracking the protests in Syria, believe there is not room to engage in further dialogue with the regime and that the regime must be overthrown.

Despite this division, which makes it difficult to consolidate a general national leadership, it is likely that a pragmatic approach will evolve as the demonstrations become stronger. The leaders of the opposition are likely to decide that they must first achieve the main goal - overthrowing the regime - and following that they can discuss the differences between the factions. In the meantime, and as a result of the division, the opposition in Syria and overseas is finding it hard to convince world powers to become more decisive in their positions towards Assad. The United States, France and Turkey - while making decisive and severe declarations against the suppression of protests - point out that the Assad regime is losing legitimacy, but have yet to voice a verdict that Assad must go.

So long as Assad remains in power, Lebanon remains in limbo. The UN tribunal report on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has laid a powerful mine that will either explode or be dismantled depending on what occurs in Syria. The government - which is required to arrest the Hezbollah operatives suspected of the murder - awaits not only a speech by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah on Saturday night, but the Syrian reaction, too. The faction led by Rafik Hariri’s son Saad Hariri is currently preparing an action plan against the government, in order to force it to arrest the suspects. If the government does not comply, Hariri’s group will organize street protests demanding the government’s removal. But with Saudi Arabia - Hariri’s core pillar of strength - refraining from uttering a word about the indictment, it will be hard for Hariri - who is overseas - to get the street into action. A speedy outcome in either direction is not expected.

The reactions by world powers, especially the U.S., to the unrest in the Arab states are not unanimous. As NATO forces continue sending planes to fight Libyan Leader Muammar Gadhafi, the United States is refraining from forcefully interfering in Yemen - deploying only special forces against al-Qaida elements there - and mainly acting against Syria via spokesmen.

Almost six months after the protests began in the Middle East, which have so far replaced two regimes, it is hard for the citizens of those countries who carried out revolutions to sketch a road map for the future. So what will be the great and revolutionary achievement? The handing over of regimes to the public? The situation resembles a multi-stage missile, where the first part of its route is carried out successfully (also in countries that have yet to succeed in ousting their dictators) and is now waiting for navigation instructions. In Egypt and Tunisia, the parliamentary elections will indicate how the new reality will look. In Yemen it appears the regime is waning and that the civil war in Libya is likely to continue for a long time with no outcome.