WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Reaction to the assassination of anti-Syrian Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has dealt several setbacks to the authoritarian regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus.
Outraged public opinion in most of Lebanon combined with united Western (especially American and French) pressure led to the quick end of the approximately 30-year Syrian troop presence in Lebanon. The subsequent U.N. inquiry into Hariri's death has identified Damascus as being responsible for it. Not only has this led to the Assad regime's increasing isolation, but also to the (possibly assisted) suicide of Syria's powerful Interior Minister, Ghazi Kannan. The U.N. inquiry's implication of Assad or any of his closest associates in Hariri's killing could undermine the regime even further.
All this has led some to speculate that a "democratic revolution" might soon occur in Syria. Similar revolutions led to the downfall of authoritarian regimes that were beleaguered both domestically and internationally in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Syria's rapid withdrawal from Lebanon earlier this year demonstrated that Damascus was vulnerable to the combined pressure of internal and external democratic forces in Lebanon. Could the Assad regime succumb to such forces in Syria itself?
In order for this to occur, there would have to emerge in Syria two key ingredients for a democratic revolution that have been present in other countries where this has occurred successfully. The first of these, not surprisingly, is the presence of a strong democratic movement. It is true such movements often appeared to be generally weak prior to democratic revolutions in several countries. Their sudden, often surprising, emergence in force usually occurred after a nationally galvanizing event such as the regime's announcement of election results favorable to it that were widely believed to be fraudulent. In Lebanon, the immediate and widespread popular suspicion that Syria was responsible for the Hariri assassination served to galvanize the democratic movement there.
In Syria, by contrast, the democratic opposition appears to be quite weak not just compared to the Assad regime, but also to the non-democratic, largely Islamist opposition. It is possible, of course, that a strong democratic opposition might suddenly manifest itself in reaction to some galvanizing event, as has occurred elsewhere. But unlike in Lebanon, the Hariri assassination has not served to galvanize nationwide opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. Nor has this occurred -- or is likely to occur -- after the U.N. inquiry accused Syrian officials of complicity in the killing.
For like it or not, most Syrians supported their country's military presence in Lebanon. Even Syrians opposed to Assad are more likely to regret the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon than the assassination of Hariri, which led to it. The Syrian public seems to have either rejected or disregarded U.N. accusations that its leaders were responsible for this. If there is a Syrian democratic movement capable of being galvanized, some event other than the Hariri assassination or U.N. accusations of Assad regime involvement in it will probably be necessary to do so.
But even if a strong Syrian democratic movement does emerge, this does not mean democratic revolution will automatically occur. A second ingredient common to other democratic revolutions must also be present: The defection of the security services to the democratic opposition.
In previous democratic revolutions, this is something that usually occurred quite suddenly within a very short period. It usually began with the defection of a few key officers, which quickly cascaded into the immobilization of the armed forces as a whole.
What happens is that once the few key officers and the units they command defect, suppressing the democratic opposition no longer involves just firing on largely unarmed individuals, but a civil war within the armed forces. This is not what any nation's armed forces want. Besides, once the initial defections occur, subsequent ones become easier. Democratic governments, after all, need armed forces too. While some of the top military leaders may lose their jobs, or even go to jail, the armed forces as a whole are likely to remain intact under the new regime. And when others are defecting, not doing so only calls negative attention to those that don't.
It is doubtful, however, that Syria's current armed forces would defect to a democratic opposition. For in Syria, it is a minority sect--the Alawites (a Shia offshoot)--which dominates both the regime's leadership and armed forces in this largely Sunni country. Democratization, then, would probably lead not just to the Sunnis replacing the Alawites in Syria's political leadership, but also to the demand that the Sunnis take control of the armed forces as well.
The Alawites, then, may lose their dominance in the armed forces if a democratic revolution occurs in Syria. They thus have a strong incentive for making sure that a democratic revolution does not occur.
How, then, can their quick withdrawal from Lebanon be explained? This was probably undertaken by Damascus to avoid an American attack. The Syrian leadership had witnessed how the U.S. quickly toppled their Iraqi neighbor, Saddam Hussein. The presence of American troops in Iraq would also make an American attack on Syria relatively easy. Withdrawing troops from Lebanon -- where the situation had grown increasingly hostile -- was undertaken to preserve both the regime in Syria and Alawite dominance over it.
The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon that has allowed for greatly increased democratization in Lebanon, though, does not mean the Syrian armed forces are willing to countenance democratization in their own country. Indeed, they appear quite willing to use force to suppress any opposition -- democratic or not. It is the firm belief they will do so, which may serve to deter the emergence of a democratic movement in Syria. If the Assad regime does falter as a result of outside pressure over the Hariri affair, it is far more likely that Syrian military officers will take over and not Syrian democrats.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.