President Bashar al-Assad's government has imposed order — but is yet to slay the three-headed dragon which threatens its survival.

Thick black lines had been scored over the graffiti under the cherubic image of President Bashar al-Assad that guards the road into Hama{minute}a. The military's clean-up squad had been less than diligent though: the word kalib, dog, survived the paint-brush censorship, and the soldiers had forgotten to have the President's gouged-out eyes repainted.

Inside the city, the rebels had left behind evidence no amount of paint could obscure: the burned-down military officers' mess on the Ard al-Khadra street, which mobs stormed in the hope of seizing weapons; the gutted office block which housed the justice department; the charred walls of the al-Hadr police station, pockmarked with machine-gun fire, where 17 police officers were lynched, before their mutilated bodies were thrown into a nearby canal.

Behind the justice ministry's office, a small group of young men described what happened when the military moved in on July 31, three months after rebel groups, armed with guns, knives and petrol bombs, seized control of much of the town. “They used snipers to shoot at us,” one says, and “more than a dozen people were killed.” The army, he claims, then tied the hands of local residents and forced them to roll on the street, all the while beating them with rifle butts.

Ever since the spring uprising in Syria, the most serious challenge to the regime since it took power in 1970, commentators had been predicting that President al-Assad's regime was on the edge of collapse. In spite of an energetic western media campaign, largely based on overblown accounts provided by exiled opposition groups, it is in fact becoming clear that the rebellion has all but collapsed: Damascus, for example, is more alive with everyday civic life than New Delhi.

But there is no disputing that Syria's government is far from slaying the three-headed dragon which threatens its future: a threat from the West; an economic crisis engendered by neoliberal economic reform; and a mounting Islamist threat.

The failed rebellion

Late in February, authorities in Dera{minute}a arrested a group of teenagers for painting anti-government slogans on the town's walls: like the Libyan, Egyptian and Yemeni rebels they'd watched on television, the protestors proclaimed that the people wanted the regime overthrown. Parents of the children, a widely-believed but possibly apocryphal account holds, met with Dera{minute}a intelligence chief Atef Naguib al-Assad to secure their release. In a traditional tribal gesture of supplication, one parent placed his headscarf on Mr. Naguib al-Assad's table, who in turn flung it into the dustbin — an unforgivable insult that sparked off rioting.

This much is clear: the protests soon spread out of Dera{minute}a, to the towns of Jisr al-Shughour, Homs and Aleppo. For weeks, President al-Assad's government allowed the rebels to hold control of the towns, ceding space in the hope of securing a political rapprochement.

In the end, the response was ferocious: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said her office had received “over 1,900 names and details of persons killed in Syria since mid-March 2011; all are said to be civilians.” It received testimony that over 350 were executed. The Syrian government denies this charge, but has released no figure of its own.

Even though the opposition council-in-exile that claims to represent Syria's rebellion includes a wide spectrum of ideological opinion — pro-western liberals, secular-nationalists and Islamists — there's just one party that seems to matter on the ground: the Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen, or Muslim Brotherhood

Born in 1937, the Brotherhood had drawn its core from the pious traditional middle class of urban merchants, artisans and clerics — independent of the ruling Ba{minute}ath party's patronage structures. Its first published manifesto, of 1954, sought the “establishment of a virtuous policy which would carry out the rules and teachings of Islam.” From 1963 to 1968, the Brotherhood led a dogged campaign of resistance against the secularising, Arab-nationalist Ba{minute}ath. Following the catastrophic defeat of Arab forces in the 1967 war against Israel, a radical faction led by the Aleppo-based weaver-turned-cleric Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah pushed for a confrontation with the regime.

Hafez al-Assad, an air force officer from the Latakia province — the first of his poor peasant family to graduate from high school — seized power. Even though Hafez al-Assad hailed from the heterodox {minute}Alawi sect, who make up just 10 per cent of the Sunni-majority of Syria's population and constituted a peasant underclass, he won Brotherhood chief Issam al-Attar's support. Knowing the al-Assad regime lacked a mass base, al-Attar bargained for policies that would help the Damascus merchant class.

In 1975 though, a combination of crippling inflation, high housing prices, and growing tensions between the Ba{minute}ath and Palestianian radicals led younger figures in the Brotherhood to take a more radical course. From 1976, there was a series of attacks on Ba{minute}ath functionaries, strikes and shutdowns — culminating in the massacre of 83 {minute}Alawi cadets at the Aleppo military academy in 1980.

The new Islamist radicals were the children of the traders who had formed the backbone of the Brotherhood — now largely students, teachers and professionals. Adlan Uqlab, who led the ill-fated 1980 uprising in Hama{minute}a, was a civil engineer whose father had been a baker; his predecessor, Abdus Sattar al-Zaim, was a dentist born to a tradesman. Husni Abbu, head of the military section of the Brotherhood in Aleppo, was a French language-teacher, born to a well-to-do merchant and the son-in-law of Shaikh Zayn-ud-Din Khairullah, the Imam of Aleppo's grand mosque.

Figures who escaped the State's ferocious assault on Hama{minute}a went on to occupy a key role in the global jihadist movement. Born and educated in Aleppo, 1958-born Mustafa Nasar joined the Combat Vanguard Organisation, a radical breakaway group from the Muslim Brotherhood, while he was studying mechanical engineering. He participated in the uprisings of 1980, and fought against Syrian forces in the 1982 bloodbath in Hama{minute}a. Forced into exile, Nasar moved to Spain and then London, where he had an influential jihadist magazine. In the years before 9/11, Nasar joined Osama bin-Laden's inner circle — though he later fell out with the al-Qaeda chief, and set up a separate organisation under the command of the Taliban's emir, Mullah Muhammad Omar.

Nasar has now emerged as among the jihadist movement's most influential ideologues, arguing in his 1,600-page manifesto, Da{minute}wat al-muqawamah al-Islamiyyah al-{minute}alamiyyah, the case for a “leaderless resistance” of individual terrorism.

Following the violence in Hama{minute}a, Aleppo and Palmyra, the Brotherhood sought to head off these nascent jihadist tendencies by adopting a more adversarial relationship with the State, repositioning itself as the spokesperson of Syria's Sunni majority against its {minute}Alawi rulers. “Nine or ten per cent of the population,” its 1980 manifesto argued (referring to the al-Assad family's sectarian origins), “cannot dominate the majority in Syria.” The {minute}Alawi “minority has forgotten itself and is ignoring the facts of history.” This, the Brotherhood said, “could ignite a murderous civil war.”

The idea resonated among Islamists: the medieval cleric Ibn Taymiyya, who fires up the imagination of the modern neo-fundamentalist movement, argued that the primary challenge for the faith was stamping out heresies like those of the {minute}Alawi.

But, as commentator Hanu Batatu pointed out in a 1982 essay, the Brotherhood also reached out to a wider constituency, adopting ideas drawn from classical liberal thought. Its 1980 programme condemned martial law and torture, and advocated judicial independence and the rule of law. It spoke to capitalist concerns, castigating industrial workers who “think they are entitled to everything” and converted “factories into hospices for the lazy and indolent.”

‘Syria is stable'

Early this year, as rebellions erupted across the Middle East, Bashar al-Assad held out sage words for other regional rulers. “Syria is stable,” he asserted. “Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” “If you didn't see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia,” he concluded, “it's too late.” His assessment was correct — but applied as much to the State he runs as to other besieged Middle Eastern regimes.

First, the United States and the European Union have seized on the rebellion to build bridges with the Muslim Brotherhood, and isolate the geopolitical adversary, Iran's principal regional ally. Harsh sanctions have been imposed, and direct support is being provided to opponents of the regime. The U.S. Ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, has been engaged in an extraordinary political campaign, first encouraging dissidents in Hama{minute}a to break off talks with the regime and more recently defying official travel restrictions to meet with opposition leaders in Jassem.

Ever since the rebellion that deposed Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt, the U.S. has moved to develop deeper links with the Brotherhood — seeing its pietist leadership as allies who will help replace its failing authoritarian collaborators with Saudi Arabia-style conservative regimes. The Brotherhood, U.S. diplomats argue, will also be able to contain anti-western jihadists. Ever since 2006, the Brotherhood has had a lobbying presence in Washington, D.C.; it also has the support of Turkey's Islamist-led government and Saudi Arabia.

Though western sanctions alone are unlikely to undermine the regime, it faces a second challenge: from a growing youth cohort alienated from the Ba{minute}ath party's patronage structure and hardhit by economic change.

President al-Assad's neoliberal reforms generated respectable economic statistics: the real growth stood at 3.2 per cent in 2010, 5 per cent in 2009, 5.1 per cent in 2008, and 4.3 per cent in 2007. Poverty, long stuck at about 15 per cent of the population, declined to 11.9 per cent in 2006.

But Nader Kabbani, director of research at the Syrian Trust for Development, noted early this year that the country's positive macroeconomic numbers masked disturbing trends. Though growth had been steady, few jobs had been created; those with only primary and intermediate qualifications found it hard to find work. In addition, severe drought, coupled with years of diminished investment in agriculture, alienated the Ba{minute}ath's core constituency, the rural poor.

The protests now unfolding in Syria thus represent the rebellion of a new generation of disenfranchised youth — the vanguard of the third challenge to the regime, from political Islam.

Protest against the regime has expressed itself through religion: Damascus residents note a steady growth in the use of headscarves, for example, which authorities even felt compelled to ban from universities in 2009. Lectures by the neo-fundamentalist cleric Yousuf al-Qaradawi are said to have become increasingly popular. There is little doubt jihadists played a vanguard role in the rebellion. Homs' Bab {minute}Amr area was one of several which came under de-facto jihadist control. A brigadier-general, along with his two sons and a nephew, was assassinated.

Policy backfires

For years now, the Syrian government sought to buy peace with the jihadists, allowing Iraq-based Islamist groups to ship weapons and cadre through their territory in return for leaving President al-Assad's regime alone. That policy has backfired: at a recent meeting with visiting journalists, Hama{minute}a Governor Anas Abdul-Razzaq Na{minute}em admitted that “Salafi-Takfiri groups who want an Islamic emirate spearheaded the uprising.”

President al-Assad understands that democratic reforms are needed to contain the threat — but the several half-steps towards political openness he has taken since 2005 have led nowhere. Now, the uprising has compelled him to promise an end to draconian emergency laws, and commit himself to holding elections. At meetings with Indian, Brazilian and South African diplomats, Syrian authorities even said they would lift the ban on the Brotherhood, if it abandoned religion-based politics.

Will this prove enough? The gains of four decades of rule by the al-Assad dynasty ought not be dismissed: the country has, without dispute, the most secular State institutions and culture of any Arab State today; women occupy positions of influence; minority rights are scrupulously protected. The fact though is, that the accompanying absence of democracy has pushed more people to the religious right — threatening to sweep away these gains.

Even though the uprising of 2011 has been crushed, thus, Syria remains on the edge of the abyss: an abyss that black paint cannot obscure.

More In: Comment | Opinion