Syria teeters on the brink
The regime's campaign of brutality in Hama could push Syria towards civil war.
But how will the international community react?
In Hama, Syrians no longer know where to bury their dead. Following the assault
on Syria's fourth largest city<http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/31/syria-hama-crackdown-tanks-protests>
by tanks and bulldozers at 5am on Sunday morning, movement is nigh impossible.
The cemeteries are cut off. Families with backyards or gardens can at least bury
their loved ones.
Hama's bloody history has seen many Syrians in unmarked graves across the city,
not least after the massacre in 1982 that left around 20,000
dead<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hama_massacre>. Who knows how many are buried
under the rubble? How many more will join them?
The regime launched what can be seen as pre-emptive massacres designed to
reassert the climate of fear and thwart any pressure to reform prior to Ramadan.
Hama had been increasingly outside of the regime's control. But will such
escalating brutality work? All the evidence of the last few months shows that
this will only trigger further protests.
Most of the debate had been on how the protesters would up their activity during
not the regime. The refrain was that every day would be Friday as large numbers
of Syrians would pour out of mosques daily into larger demonstrations all over
the country. The mosques have been the only place Syrians can gather without
security permission. No surprise, therefore, that tanks were even shelling
The regime seems to be taking them at their word. For months Fridays have
equalled repression, so now will every day see the regime's security services
and thugs dishing up a menu of death, arrests and torture. This welcome to
Ramadan salvo has left some 100 dead in Hama and 11 in Deir Ezzor. A US official
described this as "full-on warfare" although there is still no sign of the
notorious "armed gangs" that the regime claims are fermenting violence and
attacking the security services.
What is the regime's strategy? In addition to repression, it has tried to stoke
sectarianism, blame outsiders, divert attention with marches on the
Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and lure its opponents into taking up arms. All
have failed as has the charade of a reform process that saw regime apparatchiks
sitting side by side with actors listening intently to the vice-president. Even
those running this dialogue do not know if it will continue. For days the
regime's media has called for an "iron fist" strategy (what was it before?).
This may be it.
The Hama operation seems a deliberate step-up. Leaks from within the regime say
that there was a meeting on Saturday. This included the president, his brother
Maher, and key heads of the military and security apparatus. Within hours of
that meeting Hama was under attack.
The regime's opponents insist that they will not be intimidated and these
actions will only swell their ranks. Worryingly, the mood among a small but
significant number of the protesters is changing. There is growing impatience.
The demonstrations have largely been peaceful, emphasising unity and
non-violence. Increasingly there is more chatter about having the right to
protect themselves, the non-violent path seemingly discredited against a regime
prepared to use all necessary force to cling on to power, and an international
community unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Pictures of guns are
appearing on Facebook profiles. Syrians fear civil war.
Building the Syrian opposition as a political force continues. Syrian
intellectuals who organised the first-ever opposition conferences in Syria under
this regime are trying to do more. A conference on 2 August, entitled Shaping
Syria's Future and aimed at debating plans for transition to a democratic state,
has been postponed. Many of those who would have presented papers have been
arrested or forced into hiding. Others could not get to Damascus because of the
dangerous situation. Nevertheless, this political debate about Syria's future
Options for the international community are thin. Ban Ki-moon, the UN
secretary-general, is "deeply concerned", which usually means nothing will
happen. He used the same phrase when dealing with Thailand, Lebanon, Bahrain,
Iran, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on each occasion drawing a
largely inactive response.
Inaction should not be an option. The regime only sees this as a "green light."
Russia China, India, South Africa and Brazil should be compelled to explain
their positions. How many thousands does the Syrian regime have to kill before
the UN security council can even issue a condemnation?
Arab states have largely been silent on massacres in Syria, some even overtly
supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Even Egypt, which kicked out its
own dictator, has backed him. The Arab League suspended Libya and even supported
the no fly zones. In ruling out military force, foreign secretary William Hague
cited the lack of Arab League support as one key difference with Libya. This is
disingenuous because even if the Arab League had asked for action against Syria,
there is neither the appetite nor the resources in Britain, France and the US to
engage in yet another conflict.
The reality is, as I have argued previously<http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/14/syria-intervention-west>,
that there is no viable military option, and above all, most Syrians see
international intervention as the worst possible option. However, if the regime
were to commit another 1982-style massacre, how would the international
The US is pushing for oil sanctions, but largely because of the lack of
alternatives. Oil sanctions are far from welcome by opposition inside Syria who
know that this will give the regime a further excuse to punish the people and
blame external conspiracies.
Increasing targeted sanctions will be the only constructive option to pressure
the regime. The EU has announced a fourth round of sanctions against five
people, bringing the total to 35 and four entities as well. This number will
expand. It could include, for example, ad-Dounia TV, the regime channel that
habitually incites violence. Human rights researchers are confident of providing
more detailed information on other targets, so do not be surprised if we see
further rounds of sanctions. Every person associated with this regime's
atrocities needs to know that they could be next unless they stop now.
* guardian.co.uk (c) Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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