Syria’s crisis-The long road to Damascus
There are signs that the Syrian regime may become still more violent
Feb 11th 2012 | DAMASCUS AND DERAA | from the print edition
SECURITY men, most in plain clothes, speckle the main market square of
Deraa, a town of 350,000 near Syria’s border with Jordan. Yet in the brief
time given for visiting journalists to stray from a scripted tour that
highlights “terrorist” attacks on state property, a few ordinary citizens
dare to speak. “We are so scared,” says a woman clutching a boy’s hand. “I
come out to buy food, which costs more every day, but never know if I can
make it home again.” A young man with burning, bloodshot eyes lifts his
shirt, revealing two bullet scars. “We will never give up,” he declares as
men in leather jackets approach to hustle him off. A middle-aged shopper
pauses briefly before slipping into an alley. “God help us,” he whispers in
It was in Deraa that Syria’s uprising began last March, with riots
protesting against the arrest and nail-pulling torture of teenage boys who,
inspired by other Arab revolts unfolding on satellite television, had daubed
a wall with the words, “The people demand the fall of the regime”. An
ongoing government crackdown has left perhaps 1,000 civilians dead in the
town and surrounding villages, imposing an ice-thin calm. Most shops and
schools are open only some of the time. Internet-video footage reveals daily
combat between chanting, rock-throwing citizens and soldiers shooting live
rounds. Officials speak of sporadic “terrorist” attacks on sandbagged
checkpoints. As proof they parade a collection of captured pipe bombs and
rusted firearms. Clearly though, should the government withdraw its armoured
vehicles, combat troops, rooftop snipers and gun-toting thugs, then Deraa
would swiftly revert to rebel rule.
The poison in New York
Meanwhile, the world looks on impotently. At the UN Security Council on
February 4th, Russia and China raised Western ire by vetoing a mild
resolution that would have urged Bashar Assad, the president, to adhere to a
peace plan drafted by the Arab League. It pressed him to cede at least some
unspecified powers to a deputy, pending the outcome of reconciliation talks.
Russia objected to this, and more generally to the West imposing a diktat on
a sovereign state it considers an ally.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accompanied by the overseas
intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov, flew to Syria on February 7th. Mr
Lavrov described their meeting with Mr Assad as productive, insisting that
the Syrian president was committed to speedy reforms, including a new
constitution and elections, an end to violence and dialogue with his foes.
The Russians said that, as a first step, Mr Assad had directed a
vice-president, Farouk Sharaa, to initiate talks with opposition groups.
“Only Syria can decide the fate of Mr Assad,” Mr Lavrov declared.
America and many of its European allies, along with Arab Gulf states,
responded with outrage to the UN vetoes. Saying that Russia and China had
granted Mr Assad a licence to kill his own people, they jointly withdrew
their ambassadors from Damascus. Sanctions on Syria include export bans on
American technology, a European ban on oil imports and strict financial
controls, including a freeze on the overseas assets of members of the
Diplomats now speak of further options to press Mr Assad’s regime, such as
tabling a vote of condemnation at the UN General Assembly, where no country
wields a veto, and forming a contact group together with neighbouring Turkey
and Jordan to co-ordinate stronger action. This might include the imposition
of safe havens along Syria’s borders as well as direct aid to the Free
Syrian Army, a patchwork of guerrilla cells led by defecting soldiers that
has harassed government forces across the country.
Even as international diplomacy has degenerated into a power tussle
reminiscent of the cold war, Syrians are confronted with scenes of bloody
wreckage in their own cities. Since the uprising began 11 months ago, the
pattern has been for government forces to single out one rebellious village
or urban district at a time for punishment. Some 7,000 civilians have
perished as a result of such tactics. Since December frequent protests have
taken place even in the heavily populated suburbs ringing Damascus, the
capital, and Aleppo, the second city and the country’s commercial hub.
Usually, government troops have then withdrawn, taking “terrorist” prisoners
with them but leaving behind only token checkpoints.
More recently, the state-owned press has spoken ominously of the need to
shift away from what it terms “restraint”. A new security plan does indeed
seem to have been launched on February 3rd, a day seared in Syrian memories
as the anniversary of a merciless 1982 artillery assault on the
then-rebellious city of Hama, during the rule of Mr Assad’s father, Hafez,
that left the ancient town’s picturesque old quarter in ruins and some
Since that date, Bashar Assad’s troops have mounted an unprecedentedly
brutal show of force. They have showered artillery and rocket fire on Baba
Amr and Khaldiyeh, two rebel-held districts of Homs, Syria’s third-largest
city and the hub of the current uprising. They have also attacked the nearby
town of Rastan, the mountain resort of Zabadani, near the Lebanese border,
the city of Idlib, close to Turkey, and other towns. Attacks have taken
place simultaneously and relentlessly. Opposition sources say they think the
shelling is a prelude to ground assaults on all these areas.
With up to several hundred projectiles raining into Homs every hour, the
nationwide casualty toll has surged from around 20 a day to more than 50.
Transport and telephone links, along with power, water and fuel supplies
have been severed to many of the stricken areas, which were poor to begin
with and have seen their incomes shrivel during the long months of unrest.
With thousands of civilians choosing to abandon their homes despite cold
winter weather, Syria is likely soon to confront a grave internal refugee
crisis within its sealed borders. “We ask for nothing from the world, except
for coffins, since there are not enough of them here for our bodies,”
declares a sarcastic tweet from Homs.
Mr Assad’s government seems to believe that such tactics will succeed in
stanching the revolt. A Syrian businessman recounts that in a chance meeting
with a senior security official at a posh gym he was told confidently that
the current offensive would be decisive. It would in effect “decapitate” the
Free Syrian Army, the official boasted.
There are nearby precedents for such success. Saddam Hussein, the former
Iraqi dictator, ruled for more than a decade following his brutal
suppression of an uprising in the country’s south after the first Gulf war.
Turkey’s army has put a fairly tight lid on Kurdish separatism, just as
Israel has crushed two Palestinian intifadas. And Mr Assad’s own father
outlived the rebels in Hama.
There are other reasons why Mr Assad might feel he will prevail. The centre
of Damascus does, on the surface, appear surprisingly normal. Shops and
cafés are open, if largely empty. Traffic is busy at times. Syria’s
president felt secure enough recently to venture out to a restaurant.
Despite the rotting of state institutions under one-party rule, Mr Assad’s
army and security forces have, to general surprise, so far suffered
relatively few defections. Conscripts typically serve far from their
hometowns, and the army is believed to have culled potentially disloyal
soldiers from active units. Nor has Syria’s army yet unleashed its full
array of firepower, which could include helicopter gunships and jet bombers.
Despite making inroads, the rebels, who have briefly controlled areas close
to Damascus, have as yet neither the supply lines, nor the communications
capacity and heavy weaponry, to mount more than localised pinprick raids.
Perhaps more importantly, Mr Assad still enjoys at least tacit backing from
a fair proportion of Syrians. The very brutality of his crackdown has,
ironically but perhaps deliberately, bolstered loyalty among minorities that
together make up a third of Syria’s 23m people. The Assad clan, which has
ruled since 1970, are Alawites, an esoteric branch of Shiism that dominates
Syria’s coastal mountains as well as the armed forces. Poor Alawites also
make up much of the rank and file of more shadowy government militias, such
as the plainclothes thugs known as the shabiha. Vicious government tactics
have served to implicate the Alawites as a whole, raising fears of
retribution should the regime fall.
Other minority sects, including half a dozen Christian groups as well as
Shias and Druze, are less privileged by or attached to the state. Yet they
have benefited from the regime’s secularist doctrine, which has maintained a
degree of religious freedom unique in the region. Although Syria’s
opposition leadership is cross-sectarian, on the streets it is the country’s
Sunni Arab majority that has suffered the brunt of the oppression.
It is no accident that the areas which have fallen under rebel control are
almost entirely Sunni. In line with much of the region, Syria’s Sunnis have
grown religiously conservative in recent decades, and increasingly
influenced by the harsh anti-Shia rhetoric propounded by Saudi Arabia. As in
Iraq, the Sunnis’ predicament has pushed many into outright radicalism.
Comments posted below a YouTube video of an Alawite tank commander captured
by the Free Syrian Army, for instance, proposed that he should be sodomised
before being ritually slaughtered as an “infidel animal”. Many of the rebel
army’s local brigades carry names associated with Sunni triumphalism. Mosque
sermons in rebel areas habitually describe government forces as satanic
Such talk, seemingly reflecting a Sunni rage that has long simmered under
the surface, frightens other Syrians—and with good reason. Alawites recall
that what prompted the atrocity in Hama was a far smaller massacre of
Alawite army cadets, carried out by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Fear
of empowered Sunni radicals has pushed many Christians, who are keenly aware
of the decimation of neighbouring Iraq’s equally large and ancient Christian
community, grudgingly to accept the government’s characterisation of the
rebels as terrorists. “We were all with the revolution so long as the
demonstrations were peaceful,” says a Christian housewife in Damascus. “But
how can we support an armed criminal mob?”
For reasons of class, many Sunnis, particularly among the privileged
business elite that has profited under the Assads, also fear the
revolutionaries. Middle-class Syrians, too, are often warier of growing
economic hardship than of oppressive rule. Even the country’s long-repressed
15% Kurdish minority, which is mostly Sunni Muslim, has only tepidly
embraced the uprising. “They are hedging bets,” says a Syrian analyst. “What
they want is guarantees of Kurdish national rights, and so long as the
opposition cannot give these, they can hope Bashar will reward them for
The fissures within Syrian society have stymied efforts to organise
opposition to the regime. When Mr Assad succeeded his father 12 years ago, a
flush of optimism emboldened intellectuals to demand democratic reforms in a
movement known as the Damascus spring. Most were eventually jailed or exiled
and have lost credibility. But even with much coaxing from Western powers,
products of the uprising such as the Syrian National Council (SNC) and a
rival group, the National Co-ordination Body (NCB), have gained little
diplomatic traction. Neither do they have much influence in Syria, where
local committees organise resistance. The two main opposition groupings have
bickered over strategy, as the NCB at first counselled dialogue with the
state and the SNC backed foreign intervention. In fact, neither course has
proved fruitful. Some Syrians suspect the Muslim Brotherhood of being too
powerful within the SNC, whereas others say it is a tool of America. Even
the head of the Free Syrian Army has complained that the exiled opposition
groups are dominated by plotters and traitors.
All this has comforted Mr Assad, who appears to reckon that he is not as
isolated as some think. True, 19 of the Arab League’s 22 member states now
shun him, along with the West and even countries such as India, Brazil and
South Africa. And Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that was long backed
by Syria, has abandoned its Damascus headquarters. But two crucial
neighbours, Iraq and Lebanon, are politically dominated by Shia parties with
no love for Mr Assad’s foes. Hizbullah, the powerful Lebanese Shia
party-cum-militia, is a staunch friend. Strong rumours suggest that Iraq’s
prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has quietly funnelled money to his
beleaguered neighbour. And Iran, the Shia superpower and a longstanding
ally, views Mr Assad’s regime as its most important strategic buffer.
Two of Syria’s other neighbours, meanwhile, may have little interest in
seeing radical change. Israel would dearly love to break the axis linking
Iran to Hizbullah. Yet despite Syria’s rhetoric about liberating the Golan
Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, the Syrian border has in fact been
Israel’s quietest for the past 40 years. Fearing that Syria’s stockpile of
missiles and chemical weapons could fall into less restrained hands, Israel
may also calculate that maintaining a feeble, delegitimised Assad regime is
in its interest. Despite his own family’s history of tense relations with
Syria, Jordan’s King Abdullah, too, may prefer the devil he knows to the
possibility of an Islamist republic next door, though he has publicly called
for Mr Assad’s ouster.
As for Russia, Mr Assad seems to believe that much as in his father’s time,
when Syria was a Soviet client state, the Kremlin will be willing to pay a
high diplomatic price to prop him up. Syria has certainly been an avid
customer for Russian arms—though whether it will have money to spend in
future is another matter. It has encouraged Russia to revamp a naval station
at Tartus that represents Russia’s only military base outside the old Soviet
Yet on all these scores, Mr Assad could be overplaying his hand. Russia is
driven less by nostalgic delusions than by cold calculation. Perhaps it
believes that, as in Chechnya, a scorched-earth policy can fix a deathly
peace. Like Israel, it would prefer to see its southern flank bordered by
weak and polarised states, rather than an emerging Sunni Islamist bloc
dominated by an increasingly powerful Turkey. Russia may also be happy to
cock a snook at Western powers it regards as hypocritically manipulative of
public opinion, particularly in advance of next month’s presidential
election. But only if the price is right.
The zombie regime
That price could soon rise, dramatically. Most independent observers in
Damascus believe that indeed, in the short term, the Syrian regime’s savage
offensive may succeed in containing most forms of armed resistance. But if
Deraa is any indication, Mr Assad has little chance of long-term survival.
As in a vampire film, citizens go through the motions of daily life, fearful
of contact with officials. In the eyes of most, the government is totally
discredited, at best an evil to be suffered. The cold fury that clearly
burns in many homes, linked now in many hearts to religious fervour, may
flare at any time.
Even with the army’s offensive at its peak, flash protests are frequently
breaking out across Syria, including in the security-infested heart of
Damascus. Over a recent weekend, protesters staged some 400 separate
demonstrations. Israel’s military-intelligence chief reported in a recent
public briefing that only a third of conscripts answered the latest call-up
for Syria’s compulsory military service. He also cited intelligence of
cracks in Syria’s command structure, with officers speaking of the need to
replace Mr Assad and his clan.
This may be disinformation, designed to dismay Israel’s enemy, Iran. But in
economic terms Syria is pitching into a deepening crisis. The central bank’s
reserves are believed to have topped $20 billion before the uprising. Since
then they are thought to have fallen by as much as two-thirds. Syria’s
currency has slipped by nearly 50% in the past few weeks, stoking already
fierce inflation. Power cuts and fuel shortages are common, and many of the
country’s factories have closed. The tourist industry is all but dead.
Syria’s modest oil exports, the staple of government revenue, have virtually
Many Syrians are convinced that, eventually, Mr Assad will go. What worries
them is how. Few expect the opposition to seize Russia’s bait and engage in
talks with the regime. Nor do they see Mr Assad retiring willingly. On the
other hand, few expect much help from the outside world either. Those who
can are leaving the country. Those who cannot are waiting, resigned to their
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Received on Fri Feb 10 2012 - 17:43:46 EST