This Time, Brutal Crackdown in Syria may not Work
Assad's promises of reform have failed to stop the widespread protest – but Syria is no longer cut off from the outside world.
By Brian Whitaker
Monday 25 April 2011
With mass detentions across the country and military assaults on hotbeds of dissent in Deraa and Damascus, Syria's regime has begun a concerted effort to crush the five week-old uprising once and for all.
Promises of reform from President Bashar al-Assad have failed to placate the protesters, who increasingly see no real hope of change so long as he remains in power.
His decree lifting the 48-year-old state of emergency last week – though widely reported as a step forward – was accompanied by another decree imposing tough conditions for the "licensing" of demonstrations, which in effect means they all have to be approved by the government. Unlicensed demonstrations are now officially classed as riots, even if they are entirely peaceful.
In the view of many analysts, the only hope for the Assad regime to save itself was by opening up the system through rapid and far-reaching reform. There is no sign that it is capable of doing so – there are too many vested interests – and in the absence of a political solution, it now has only one course left: brutal repression.
That is the course the president's father, Hafez al-Assad, chose in 1982 when his forces massacred thousands in the city of Hama – a move that spread fear across the country and, until last month, deterred the vast majority of Syrians from challenging the regime's power.
The spectre of a new Hama massacre was raised again on social networks as troops and tanks moved into Deraa around dawn on Monday. While there is little doubt that the regime has launched a major offensive in the city, what exactly is happening there is still unclear.
But what worked for the regime in 1982 will not necessarily work today. As Rania Abouzeid points out in an article for Time magazine, "the regime is still ruthless, but this time the rebellion is not restricted to one city or one sect". The current uprising is spread far more widely across the country and includes a broad spectrum of disaffected citizens.
It is also far more difficult to suppress news of the latest killings than it was in 1982. Even with phones and electricity cut off in Deraa, amateur videos from the city had begun appearing on YouTube within a few hours of the troops' arrival.
The regime's own media strategy has failed to adapt to this. It claims that reports of civilians being killed by security forces are fabrications cooked up by activists and the international media, while the official news agency talks constantly about "armed criminal groups" trying to destabilise the country. This is so patently at odds with what is going on that only the most fanatical Assad supporters are likely to be taken in by it; for the rest, it just makes the regime look less and less credible.
It is also debatable whether intensified repression will have the effect the regime seeks. The evidence from the last five weeks is that far from intimidating people it is simply making them more angry. For every death there is a funeral, which creates another opportunity to protest. Aware of this, the regime in some cases appears to be withholding bodies – thus delaying or preventing funerals and the protests that accompany them.
Following the mass demonstrations on Friday which reportedly led to scores of deaths, President Obama said: "This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now," though he did not indicate what the United States might do if the violence continued.
Declaring a Libyan-style no-fly zone – even if Nato felt capable of handling it – would do little to protect civilians, since the regime is not threatening them from the air.
One option reportedly being considered is for Obama to sign an executive order imposing sanctions on specific Syrian officials which could include freezing any assets they hold outside the country.
That is one of the actions urged by Human Rights Watch on Sunday, though it is also calling for the UN to set up an international inquiry into the killings.
It is doubtful, though, how much impact sanctions would have on the Damascus regime. President Assad's corrupt cousin, Rami Makhlouf, has already been under US sanctions for several years without any obvious effect.
On a practical level, there may be very little that outsiders can do beyond signalling disapproval and not co-operating with the regime. Actually toppling it is probably going to depend on the efforts of Syrians themselves.