For instance, Corbin (2011) reports that, "The recent wave of domestic revolts moving east from the Maghreb to engulf the Levant and the Arab peninsula in the past few months is sparing few Arab states. The long-standing Ba'thist regime of the al-Assad family in Syria is no exception. As the initially isolated protests in the southern town of Dara'a spread throughout the country within weeks, the al-Assad regime faces the most significant challenge to its rule since the 1980s."
In the past, though, the Assads have historically proven up to the task of meeting such significant challenges to their rule and this latest round of challenges is certainly no exception.
During the past two years or so, there has been growing widespread unrest and public demonstrations throughout Syria
In response to these unsettling events, the Syrian government has taken steps to mollify the protests. Some of the steps the Syrian government has taken in response to these popular demands include a few modest concessions to the demonstrators, including the suspension of emergency law, formal approval for the creation of new political parties as well as local and national election reforms.
These social and political initiatives, though, have fallen far short of the demands from demonstrators and opposition parties for the country's president to resign, but Assad remains firmly in charge of the country -- for the present at least. The result of this intransigence has been even more widespread unrest, some of which has been met with violence reprisals from the Assad government. Analysts with the U.S. government emphasized that, "International pressure on the Assad regime has intensified since late 2011 as the Arab League, EU, Turkey, and the United States have expanded economic sanctions against the regime."
Lesser men, perhaps, would have buckled under this growing pressure but the al-Assad family has proven its ability to read the signs and take preemptive action to stay in power whatever the circumstances and whatever the implications may be for the Syrian people. For instance, the current Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States on the Syrian crisis, Lakhdar Brahami, began meeting with regional heads of state to facilitate a cease-fire in October 2012.
These actions were necessary because of the carnage that was taking place at the time. In fact, by October 2012, the casualties from clashes between Syrian government forces and opposition forces reached 30,000.
The cease fire was violated by Syrian forces most recently on October 30, 2012, killing more than 500 civilians in the process.
Further exacerbating conditions in Syria today are the economic effects that have accrued, due in large part to continuing international sanctions and the incessant political turbulence. The economy continues to be highly regulated by the Syrian government and the short-term outlook for the Syrian economy is uncertain. For example, according to U.S. government analysts, "Long-run economic constraints include foreign trade barriers, declining oil production, high unemployment, rising budget deficits, and increasing pressure on water supplies caused by heavy use in agriculture, rapid population growth, industrial expansion, and water pollution."
Economics aside, though, the country also has some religious and ethnicity issues that are divisive and complex, and which contribute to the situation in which Assad finds himself today. The ethnic groups in Syria are predominately Arab (90.3%), with Kurds, Armenians and others comprising the remaining 9.7%.
Although Arabic is the official language, Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, and Circassian are widely understood and French and English are somewhat understood. The country is nearly three-quarters (74%) Sunni Muslim and Islam is the official state religion, and other Muslim sects includes Alawite and Druze (16%), Christians of various denominations (10%), and small Jewish enclaves in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo (Syrian people, 2012). At present, the population of Syria is around 22,530,746.
Although less than three-quarters (73.6%) of females in Syria are literature, 86% of male Syrians can read and write and life expectancy is nearly 75 years.
Syria is also located geographically in the middle of a hotbed of countries where longstanding religious and political battles have been waged. Against this backdrop, the events that are playing out on the streets of Damascus and throughout the rest of Syria have assumed new relevance and importance to the international community because of the implications that are involved should Assad succeed in remaining in power despite the groundswell of opposition that is growing around him from the international community and his own people as well. By circling the wagons and surrounding himself with as many layers of protection as possible, Assad has mobilized all of his resources and appears willing to fight it out to the bloody end. Certainly, this has been the traditional approach used by dictators in these circumstances. In this regard, Alvarez-Ossorio (2012) emphasizes that, "Authoritarian regimes have traditionally been disinclined to accept any political or social opposition and have been hostile to the development of an independent civil society that could form a counterweight to state power."
Moreover, helping Assad stay in power has been the fact that he has been virtually unopposed politically at home. For instance, "Article 8 of the Syrian constitution established the Baath party, which has prevented any independent parties from emerging since the 1963 military but bloodless coup that brought it to power as the leading party in the state and society."
Notwithstanding the dubious track record of systematic repression of the people and press that has helped him maintain his position in power, though, there has been little opposition until recently. Nevertheless, there are signs that a sustained effort by opposition leaders may be cracking the formidable shell of military materiel and weaponry that Assad had created around himself and his cadre of followers.
In addition, besides the international economic sanctions that have caused significant problems for the ruling regime, the government of President Bashar al-Assad is also confronted with growing pressure from neighboring states as well as many of the Western powers.
The situation has become even more severe for Assad since late 2011 as uprisings in neighboring countries, especially Egypt and Tunisia, together with the ousting of former Libyan president, Muammar Qaddafi in a civil war that was supported by military actions from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have changed the complexion of the region.
Although the uprisings in other neighboring countries succeeded in overthrowing these longstanding dictators, it remains unclear how these events will play out in Syria given Assad's ability to remain in power to date. In this regard, Clawson emphasizes that, "It is not clear if Assad will fall or if he will hold on to power. It is fair to say that because his hold on power is sufficiently in doubt, it is well worth examining what would be the strategic consequences if he fell and what would be the strategic implications if he is able to muddle through Syria's current difficulties."
"Muddling through" in these circumstances, though, has profound implications for the people of Syria and the post-Assad nation that will result.
The strategic consequences, though, are of more salient interest to the West but it is clear that the people of Syria have much more at stake. Furthermore, based on the circumstances in which the other Middle Eastern and North African countries have experienced tumultuous and rapid change, the situation in Syria has profound implications for the rest of the world in general and on U.S. interests in the region in particular.
For example, Levitt (2010) reports that, "The Syrian government is the longest-standing member of the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, having been so designated in 1979."
Likewise, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, made it clear where the United States stood with respect to the incalcitrance exhibited by Assad in a speech before the Armed Services Committee when he stated:
Widespread demands for political change in Syria started more than a year ago. Rather than meeting these legitimate demands, the regime of Bashar al-Assad turned instead to violence against its own people. That violence has been brutal and devastating. It has put the Syrian people in a desperate and difficult situation. It has outraged the conscience of all good people. And it has threatened stability in a very important part of the world. The United States has made clear that the Assad regime has lost its legitimacy and that this crisis has no effective solution without Assad's departure. As the President has stated, Assad must go.
Assuming that the same forces that drove Tunisia and Egypt's leaders from their positions of power also succeed in overthrowing the Assad regime, it also remains uncertain what the implications for the Syrian people themselves might be. For instance, Clawson emphasizes that, "It is not clear how disordered the process of Assad's overthrow might be or what would be the character of a post-Assad government. To start with the transition, there is the risk of a violent civil war. Assad seems determined to rally Syria's Alawite minority to support him…