Analyst View: Syria faces crisis as protests flare

(Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is facing the deepest crisis of his 11 years in power and protesters were gathering again on Saturday in the southern city of Deraa after security forces fired on demonstrators on Friday.

Following are some comments on what may lie ahead for Syria.

MAHA AZZAM, associate fellow at Chatham House

“Frictions will increase between the Assad regime and some in the army. But it is difficult to say what direction the army will take.

“It has been closely controlled by the regime and it has vested interests in the status quo. If it sees the Assad family as a liability, the army may feel it is in its interests to move against the regime. But I think you would need a greater momentum on the streets for that to happen.

“For now they’ll wait to see if the regime can bring reforms. My view is that the reforms would have to be drastic to be accepted by the people.

“What we’ve seen in the other revolts in the region suggests that in Syria, even if the popular opposition is stemmed in coming weeks, it will resurface. Once you have broken the barrier of fear, it is probably a matter of when, not if, a regime falls.

“Stability in Syria is important for its neighbors including Israel and what’s happening is worrying for all of them, as well as for governments in the Gulf.”

FAYSAL ITANI, deputy head of Middle East and North Africa Forecasting at Exclusive Analysis

“The regime really doesn’t have any good options. It is placing enormous pressure on the mainly Sunni army by ordering it to fire on Sunni demonstrators. With the exception of the Alawi Republican Guard, the army is a Sunni conscript force.

“If the unrest continues at this pace the Syrian army is not going to be able to maintain cohesion.”

Asked if a repeat of the sort of wholesale massacre seen at Hama in the 1980s was possible, Itani replied:

“There is a very real risk of such a thing happening. For a minority regime this is an existential struggle. Minorities cannot afford to let majorities take liberties. They don’t tend to see the middle ground.

“The question is not whether they are willing to do it. The question is whether they have enough troops willing to do it.”

KARIM EMILE BITAR, research fellow at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations

“The Syrian regime will have to reform itself radically if it wants to survive. No country in the region is immune in the face of this revolutionary wind that is blowing from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

“The Syrian regime is attempting to make promises such as a potential lifting of the state of emergency, which has been in place since 1963, a record in the Arab world. But if this happens it will be the end of a whole system, prisoners will have to be released, the press will be free … when this kind of regime considers relaxing its grip, it also knows that everything could collapse.

“I think the army and the secret services will remain faithful to al-Assad right until the end, for reasons that are essentially sectarian (i.e. preservation of minority Allawite rule). In Bahrain they played the Sunni-Shi’ite card, in Syria we will see the Allawite-Sunni card.

“The specter of the (1982) Hama massacre is very present … but now that there is YouTube, Facebook, Al Jazeera. It’s no longer so easy to crush dissent in this way.

“The international community does not have a lot of room for maneuver, but there are nonetheless lines that cannot be crossed.

“Syria is Iran’s main ally in the Arab world. A fall of the regime would have consequences for Hezbollah and Hamas…I’m not sure that the region’s big powers would allow such a big shock.”

(Reporting by Lionel Laurent in Paris and William Maclean in London; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Analyst View: Syria faces crisis as protests flare