Protesters Want Changes To Syria's Power Structure

The Assad family, which has ruled Syria for the last 40 years, belongs to the Alawite religious sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. It includes only 12 percent of the country's population. Syria expert Joshua Landis talks to Steve Inskeep about how the family has maintained its power.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep, good morning.

The secretary-general of the United Nations wants an investigation of Syria. Ban Ki-moon is asking why the government used tanks and live ammunition against civilians.

It is hard to get answers out of Syria right now. The country is largely closed to Western reporters. We do know that there have been protests in some cities. And we also know something of the Syrian power structure. The Assad family has controlled Syria for decades. They belong to the Alawite religious sect, an offshoot of Shiia Islam.

Professor JOSHUA LANDIS (Director, Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma): What you have today in Syria as an odd political structure, where the hell Alawites dominate the presidency, the security forces, the intelligence units, and they're only 12 percent of the population.

INSKEEP: Syria expert Joshua Landis lived in the country in the past, and explains how the inside family has maintained its rule.

Prof. LANDIS: It is based on the family links and sectarian links. Syria spent almost 20 years as - you know, some people call it a banana republic - but it was extremely unstable. There were coups during the '50s and '60s all the time. The Assad's figured out a way to stabilize Syria and that was by using traditional loyalties. These people at the top, they believe that there's going to be civil war if they're overthrown. They believe that they are the secular leadership.

Now, the opposition denies all this and says this is complete bunkum. Syria has split into two parts today and they're not talking to each other. They both, in a sense, live in different worlds and they see Syria with different realities. And that's the problem, is there is extremely - Syria is very split.

INSKEEP: The split being the people who are in charge, the Alawite sect and the people around Assad, and everybody else.

Prof. LANDIS: Well, there's a lot of Sunnis. The Sunni upper classes, although they are critical of the regime - they see its faults - they're clinging to it because they fear civil war. They fear Iraq. And many people in Syria see Iraq as a model for what may become of Syria, because the opposition does not have a leadership.

The great strength of the opposition is that it does not have a leadership, because the regime has not been able to arrest the people or find them. This is a movement led by young activists who are in their 20's and early 30s, who are not centralized and who come from every different walk of life in Syria.

That strength, though, is going to become a real weakness if the regime becomes destabilized.

INSKEEP: We have mainly heard, in recent days and weeks, about protests in the southern city of Daraa. There have been rumors or reports of protests in other places but not nearly as large.

Do you have any sense of whether the opposition to Assad is nationwide?

Prof. LANDIS: The opposition is nationwide. Syrians have lived under this regime for 40 years. They're fed up with the corruption. They're fed up with the lack of freedoms. They want change. Many do not want to overthrow the system. They want to work through the reforms.

We have seen, in Damascus and Aleppo, the two major cities of Syria, people have not come out on the streets in big numbers. Demonstrations have started in the suburbs of the cities, the poorer suburbs, but they have not reached the center of the cities. That has to happen for this movement to really overthrow the regime.

INSKEEP: Why hasn't it happened?

Mr. LANDIS: Because they're frightened. The sort of middle-class, the stolid, conservative middle-class and upper middle classes, don't want the civil war.

INSKEEP: It's interesting when you say that people are frightened, you didn't say that they were frightened first of Assad and his security forces, although I'm sure the people are. But that their greatest fear was what comes after Assad.

Mr. LANDIS: Yes. I mean there are a million Iraqi refugees in Syria. Three hundred thousand of them are Christians. Ten percent of Syria, six to 10 percent of Syria is Christian. The Christians have worked themselves into a lather of anxiety about the prospect of being ethnically cleansed if the state collapses. They're clinging to this regime. Other minorities are doing the same.

This, increasingly as it moves on, although the slogans of the opposition are: unity, freedom, democracy, there is a boiling sectarian tension underneath it that has people very frightened.

INSKEEP: Joshua Landis lived for years in Syria. He is director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies.

Thanks very much.

Prof. LANDIS: It's a pleasure.

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