Fear of Civil War Mounts in Syria as Crisis Deepens
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
January 14, 2012
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The failure of an Arab League mission to stanch violence in Syria, an international community with little leverage and a government as defiant as its opposition is in disarray have left Syria descending into a protracted, chaotic and perhaps unnegotiable conflict.
The opposition speaks less of prospects for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad and more about a civil war that some argue has already begun, with the government losing control over some regions and its authority ebbing in the suburbs of the capital and parts of major cities like Homs and Hama. Even the capital, Damascus, which had remained calm for months, has been carved up with checkpoints and its residents have been frightened by the sounds of gunfire.
The deepening stalemate underlines the extent to which events are slipping out of control. In a town about a half-hour drive from Damascus, the police station was recently burned down and in retaliation electricity and water were cut off, diplomats say. For a time, residents drew water in buckets from a well. Some people are too afraid to drive major highways at night.
In Homs, a city that a Lebanese politician called “the Stalingrad of the Syrian revolution,” reports have grown of sectarian cleansing of once-mixed neighborhoods, where some roads have become borders too dangerous for taxis to cross. In a suggestion that reflected the sense of desperation, the emir of Qatar said in an interview with CBS, an excerpt of which was released Saturday, that Arab troops should intervene in Syria to “stop the killing.”
“There’s absolutely no sign of light,” said a Western diplomat in Damascus, a city once so calm it was called Syria’s Green Zone. “If anything, it’s darker than ever. And I don’t know where it’s going to end. I can’t tell you. I don’t think anyone can.”
The forbidding tableau painted by diplomats, residents, opposition figures and even some government supporters suggests a far more complicated picture than that offered by Mr. Assad, who delivered a 15,000-word speech on Tuesday, declaring, “We will defeat this conspiracy without any doubt.” The next day, he appeared in public for the first time since the uprising began in a Syrian backwater last March.
More telling, perhaps, was the arrival of a Russian ship last week, said to be carrying ammunition and seeming to signal the determination of the government to fight to the end.
“Day by day, Syrians are closer to fighting each other,” said a 30-year-old activist in Arabeen, near the capital, who gave his name as Abdel-Rahman and joined a protest of about 1,000 people there on Friday. “Bashar has divided Syrians into two groups — one with him, one against him — and the coming days will bring more blood into the streets.”
In the other Arab revolts, diplomacy and, in Libya’s case, armed intervention proved crucial in the unfolding of events. Even Bahrain had an international commission whose report on the uprising there was viewed by the United States and some parties in that gulf state as a basis for reform. Syria has emerged as the country where the stalemate inside is mirrored by deadlock abroad.
Syria still counts on the support of Russia and China in the United Nations Security Council. In the Arab world, Syria has allies in Iraq and Algeria, whose foreign minister said Wednesday that Syria “is in the process of making more of an effort.”
Another diplomat in Damascus was fatalistic. “There’s not much more that anyone, at the international level, can do,” he said. “There’s not much more the Arab League can, either.”
Syria’s agreement to allow 165 observers from the Arab League last month to monitor a deal that seemed stillborn even when it was announced — a government pledge to end violence, free prisoners and pull the military from cities — was viewed as one of the last diplomatic tools.
But last week, one of the monitors, an Algerian named Anwar Malek, resigned in disgust, saying the mission had only given Mr. Assad cover to continue the crackdown. Opposition activists say hundreds have died since the monitors arrived.
“Bashar was looking for a shield, and he found it with us,” Mr. Malek said in an interview. “The mission has failed until now. It hasn’t achieved anything.”
He said at least three other monitors were also quitting.
The mission’s leader, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Ahmed al-Dabi, who once ran Sudan’s notorious military intelligence agency, attacked Mr. Malek, saying he stayed in his hotel room rather than doing his job. But Nabil el-Araby, the Arab League’s secretary general, acknowledged where Syria might be headed, with or without the monitors.
“Yes, I fear a civil war, and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war,” he said in an interview with an Egyptian television station.
He echoed a growing sentiment in many capitals, the potential for Syria’s crisis to intersect with a combustible array of rivalries in the region.
Peter Harling, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, said, “I’ve never seen something quite so ominous take shape in the region in 15 years.”
As with past speeches, Mr. Assad’s address on Tuesday was not meant for the protesters challenging his 11-year rule. His audience, analysts say, was his supporters, who were by many accounts buoyed by his projection of confidence and his suggestion of reform: a constitutional referendum and the prospect of a national unity government.
“They finally grasped it, and this is the first positive sign they’ve shown,” said a 28-year-old Damascus resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He tried to attend the rally on Wednesday but got stuck in traffic. “They’ve now moved from defense to offense.”
Mr. Assad still commands a largely loyal government. Unlike in Libya, defections from within the leadership, or even diplomatic service, have been few — so rare, in fact, that the departure of a mid-ranking cleric from the state’s religious establishment recently was hailed as a victory by the opposition.
For many, the calculus remains much as it did at the beginning of the uprising. Though some soldiers have defected from the military, the more essential security forces, dominated by Mr. Assad’s own Alawite clan, have remained cohesive. Their loyalty, along with support from nervous Christians — who with the Alawites make up more than a fifth of the country — means his fall is not imminent or even likely.
But residents and diplomats speak of the erosion of his authority, often framed as the diminishment of the prestige of the state. Embassies have drastically reduced their staffs, and residents in Damascus speak of a growing anxiety after twin bombings tore through a fortified part of the capital in December.
“There is nothing happening around us, but psychologically, the stress ... I don’t know, it’s hitting home now,” said a 29-year-old bank employee in Damascus who declined to give her name. “The last explosions were really close. It’s very stressful.”
In Homs, beleaguered but still famous for its humor, residents have poked fun at the grimness. A joke these days has a husband bringing home a chicken. He suggests his wife cook it in the oven. But there’s no gas, she tells him. The stove? No electricity, she says. Spared, the chicken declares, “God, Syria, Bashar and no one else!”
Activists admit to a growing vacuum in embattled streets, as the bitterly divided exiled opposition fails to connect with the domestic protest movement.
“They don’t understand the situation on the ground, and they have to be blamed for that,” said Wissam Tarif, an activist with Avaaz, a human rights and advocacy group. He warned about a growing armed presence in Syria, with no leadership. “It’s a very dangerous business. The vacuum will eventually be filled. By whom, we don’t know.”
Another resident in Damascus, where blackouts are becoming more frequent and longer, cast the future starkly.
“Each side is trying to eliminate or belittle the other,” he said. “They both refuse to acknowledge the other side. When you talk to them, they will convince you that, come on already, it’s a done deal, God is with them. God must be torn, I tell you.”
Hwaida Saad and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Beirut, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations.