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Syria proves immune to upheaval roiling the region

Source : Zeina Karam | AP
DAMASCUS | 05 Feb 2011

Syria's president recently boasted that his country, one of the Arab world's most stifling regimes, is immune to the upheaval roiling other Arab countries. He was proven right — at least for the time being.

A weeklong online campaign failed to galvanize the kinds of mass protests that have rocked Tunisia and Egypt in recent weeks. In fact, no one showed up Friday and Saturday for what were to be “days of rage” against the Syrian president’s rule.

By Saturday afternoon, the number of plainclothes security agents stationed protectively in key areas of the old city of the capital, Damascus, had begun to dwindle.

“The only rage in Syria yesterday was the rage of nature,” wrote Syrian journalist Ziad Haidar, in reference to a cold spell and heavy rain lashing the country.

But it was more than just the weather that kept Syrians at home. A host of factors — including security agents and President Bashar Assad's popular anti-Israel policies — kept Syria quiet this weekend.

“Syria has its own set of peculiarities that make it quite different from Egypt and Tunisia,” said Mazen Darwish, a journalist who headed the independent Syrian Media Center until it was closed down in 2009.

A major difference is that Assad — unlike leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan — is not allied with the United States, so he is spared the accusation that he caters to American demands.

Bashar, a 45-year-old British-trained eye doctor, inherited power from his father, Hafez, in 2000, after three decades of authoritarian rule. He has since moved slowly to lift Soviet-style economic restrictions, letting in foreign banks, throwing the doors open to imports and empowering the private sector.

He is seen by many Arabs as one of the few leaders in the region willing to stand up to Israel.

His backing for Palestinian and Lebanese groups opposed to the Jewish state, as well as his opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, appears to have helped him maintain a level of popular support.

Israel's continued occupation of Syria's strategic Golan Heights also stokes nationalist sentiment, said Darwish.

“This gives credibility to the Syrian leadership which is seen as fighting a legitimate cause.”

Facebook and other social networking sites are officially banned, although many Syrians still manage to access them through proxy servers.

Most of the Facebook groups that called for protests are believed to have been created by Syrians abroad — which could help explain why the planned protests fell flat.