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 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. 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 Ramadan, 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 mosques.
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 continues apace.
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, 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 community react?
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.
Chris Doyle is the Director of CAABU
(Advancing Arab-British Relations)