- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad is caving in to demands to reform his dictatorship. In that dark and oppressed part of the world, compromise can only mean that the end is near.

Authoritarian regimes faced with mass uprisings have basically two choices: Attempt to placate the people in the streets or unleash their security forces and brutally put down the rebellion. Historically, the crackdown strategy is the most reliable. It’s a regrettable fact that a dictator with loyal security forces can impose his will on people yearning to breathe free. Sometimes, regimes want to go the crackdown route but can’t because security forces sympathize with the rebellion. If this is the case, the dictator should hop the next plane to a cushy exile. But when the army and police - and, of course, secret police - are loyal and ruthless, overwhelming force rarely fails. The revolutions that did not happen in China in 1989 and in Iran in 2009 are cases in point.

Occasionally, regime violence leads to further instability. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali attempted to quell demonstrators but lost his nerve after 28 days and fled to Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s Central Security Forces killed upwards of 800 protesters, but eventually the army - which had maintained the good will of the people - turned on Mr. Mubarak. The generals ended his regime but preserved military rule, at least temporarily.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is engaged in a failing carrot-and-stick negotiation with the growing opposition. In February, he promised to step down in 2013, which turned 20,000 people into the streets of the capital of Sana’a to denounce him. By the end of March, after a series of shootings, high-level defections and contentious negotiations, Mr. Saleh pledged to hand power to a “national unity government” by the end of 2011. It’s likely he will be out of power in a matter of months.

Mr. Assad and his Ba’athist cronies have been trying to silence dissent by force, for example killing 14 demonstrators in the town of Homs over the weekend. As in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, each incident turns more people out into the streets. Syria’s Interior Ministry warned that “armed mutiny” would not be tolerated and asked citizens “to refrain from any mass rallies or demonstrations or sit-ins,” pledging to enforce the laws “serving the citizens’ security and stability.” Syrian dissidents, however, already know they are taking their lives into their hands by standing up to the Ba’athists. If the hundreds of people killed over the last six weeks hasn’t stopped them, a press release from the Mukhabarat won’t make any difference.

Mr. Assad has tried to placate protesters with the usual gestures, such as releasing political prisoners, reshuffling his cabinet and pledging to “keep up with the aspirations of the people.” The government lifted an emergency law that had been in effect since a 1963 coup and abolished secret courts. The strongman even closed a casino that had been the focus of Islamist outrage. To regime opponents, these gestures demonstrate the effectiveness of mass protest. When dictators show this type of weakness, demonstrators are emboldened, protests intensify and key members of the regime’s power base begin to calculate the best time to jump ship.

Regime change in Damascus has the potential of giving the Syrian people their first taste of democracy since their republic was overthrown in 1949. It also would remove a key Iranian ally from the “Shiite Crescent.” Growing numbers of Syrians are seizing the opportunity to throw off Ba’athist rule, and Mr. Assad’s options are rapidly dwindling to a choice between exile or imprisonment.