Like many of its brethren in the Arab world, the country of Syria has been engulfed in protests over its authoritarian leader President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Assad has responded to these protests by offering a mixture of reforms and violent crackdowns, neither of which have assuaged the protesters.
At the moment Syria seems to be in a state of temporary equilibrium; the protests go on, with the government unable to stop them. Yet Mr. Assad still firmly holds the reigns of power. This cannot last forever, of course. Eventually the protests will topple Mr. Assad, or Mr. Assad will break his opposition.
The key seems to be the city of Damascus, the capital and most populous city in Syria. Take an analogy to the Egyptian Revolution. The massive protests in Cairo – the capital and most populous city of Eygpt – were the key to President Hosni Mubarak’s fall. Had there not been protests in Cairo (or only minor ones), it’s very likely that Mr. Mubarak would still be running Eygpt today.
Damascus holds a similar role for Syria; like Cairo, it is the capital and heart of Syria. A similar percentage of Syrians live in Damascus as Egyptians living in Cairo. The protesters desperately desire for another Tahrir Square to happen in Damascus. Mr. Assad will desperately do his best to ensure that this never happens.
If fifty thousand people gathered in Damascus to march against the government, then Mr. Assad’s rule would be shaken like nothing else. It would be a harbinger of the end.
Tens of thousands of people have indeed gathered in the streets of Damascus. But these have been rallies and marches in support of the government (such as the image shown at the top). The protests in Damascus so far have been small and easily dispersed.
The major protests seem to have occurred in more provincial, poorer, and more religious areas of Syria; the areas that have not benefited from Mr. Assad’s rule. Syria’s two largest cities, on the other hand, have done relatively well economically; there is support for Mr. Assad amongst the middle class. Indeed, the perception of the protesters as more provincial may be hurting them greatly in Damascus and Aleppo (the second-largest city in Syria). The New York Times has written a fascinating article about the opposition’s relative lack of success there.
So far major protests numbering thousands or (what is really necessary) tens of thousands of people have not occurred in Damascus. They may never occur. Damascus may remain in Mr. Assad’s camp, and so enable him to stay in power. Or perhaps one day the people of Damascus will decide to cast their lot with the opposition, and an end will come to the rule of Mr. Assad.