President Assad claims his country is stable, but unrest is gathering pace – and any uprising will be more like Libya’s

Dara'a revolution youth union branch destroyed by protesters The Ba’ath affiliated Revolution Youth Union’s Dera’a branch – destroyed by protesters on March 21. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP 

In whichever countries it has already broken out – from Yemen, whose President Saleh is suffering new, perhaps even terminal reverses, to Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi defies the military “crusaders” from the west – the Arab democratic revolution pursues its seemingly inexorable, if chequered, course. But is it yet another country’s turn now? Of all Arab regimes, none more resembles those of former presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali than President Assad and the ruling Ba’athists of Syria; and, after their fall, his 51-year-old “republican monarchy” looked the next most logically in line of candidates to succumb to the Arab uprising.

Yet Assad himself begged to differ. “We are not Egyptians or Tunisians,” he said; Syria might have “more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries” but it was “stable”. And outwardly it did remain an island of calm, even as pro-democracy turbulence rocked other Arab countries from the Atlantic to the Gulf. But last week things suddenly changed. A series of small-scale and isolated but audacious protests developed into much larger ones after Friday prayers in a string of Syrian cities.

One, in the southern city of Dera’a, was particularly serious. It had been triggered by the arrest of 15 schoolchildren accused of scrawling anti-government graffiti on city walls, among them that trademark slogan – “the people want the overthrow of the regime” – of the uprisings elsewhere. It was a peaceful gathering but the security services opened fire, killing three. The next day a much larger, angrier crowd – estimated to number as many as 20,000 – turned out for the burial of the previous days’ victims.

Given the weakness and divergences of the traditional Syrian opposition, and sectarian and ethnic divisions in society at large, there are doubts whether these scattered outbreaks will coalesce into a cohesive, full-scale uprising.

Yet with the Dera’a disturbances now into their fourth consecutive day, this disparate opposition is clearly developing a serious momentum on the streets. There is a growing feeling that it could escalate into something much bigger and more decisive, with the regime’s own reactions – now consisting of the usual brute force with a novel, nervous admixture of conciliation – constituting the key factor as to whether it does or not.

If it does, Syria will, strategically speaking, become a kind of first. For decades Arabs have fallen into two main camps: on the one hand the so-called moderate regimes, pillars of the western-supported, Israel-indulging “stability” in the region; or on the other, the so-called radical or resistance camp – Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Americans and Arab “moderates” have forever sought to lure the Ba’athist regime into their camp, to tame it, or even bring it down. But so far it has been to their own camp that all the uprisings – and already fallen or grievously threatened dominoes – have been confined. Indeed, according to Assad, it is precisely because Syria was never a member of it that it would be spared an uprising of its own. His regime was chiefly stable, he said, because it was the true embodiment of the Arabs and Syrians’ “ideology, belief and cause” – essentially the struggle against Israel and western powers standing behind it. It thereby boasted a “patriotic legitimacy” that all other regimes lacked.

But this argument, advanced by a despot in favour of his own survival, appears almost as delusional as those advanced by others – such as the al-Qaida of Colonel Gaddafi’s bizarre imagining. The patriotic card clearly counts for little with the Syrian public. It is just a diversion from the real issues at stake.

And these are essentially the same as those that have moved Arabs everywhere else. Assad may be more personally popular than some of his counterparts but his apparatus of repression, led by members of his own family, is fiercer than Mubarak or Ben Ali’s ever was. “A Syria free of tyranny, emergency laws and special tribunals,” protesters shouted. The Assads are also as monopolistically corrupt as the Mubaraks were; protesters cursed Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and chief of the crony capitalists around him, and in Dera’a they burned down a branch of the cellphone company he owns. In this one-party state the million-strong Ba’ath party has owned the political process longer, more pervasively and more profitably than did Mubarak’s National Democratic party; in Dera’a they also burned down its local headquarters.

The regime has been trying to buy goodwill with bribes to keep key constituencies in line. But as for the people’s demands for freedom and democracy – there is so far almost no promise of that. Indeed, Assad has frankly asserted that he didn’t envisage such fundamental reforms before “the next generation”.

That doesn’t augur well for dialogue, reconciliation, or a smooth transition of power. So if uprising there is to be, it will be more like Libya’s. Never would the army and police leaderships abandon the political leadership as they did in Egypt and Tunisia. For them all, so incestuously linked, overthrow is simply not an option. For the regime they most resemble, and whose fate most surely haunts them, is that of the late Saddam Hussein and their brother-Ba’athists in Baghdad.