As the death toll in the latest crackdown in Syria reaches 125, including at least 100 dead in the besieged city of Hama (above), U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Syrian democracy activists today as the Obama administration considers fresh sanctions against Damascus.
“A feared scenario—that protests would intensify during the holy month of Ramadan, which began Monday, and that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would scramble to regain full control of restive cities—appeared to be unfolding,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “Government security forces raided mosques in several cities Monday evening and used nail bombs to disperse crowds gathering to march in support of Hama and Deir el-Zour, said residents and activists.”
Syrian state TV broadcast amateur footage (above) purportedly showing armed resistance by civilians in Hama.
Clinton’s first ever meeting with Syrian opposition figures was “scheduled to discuss the ongoing assaults and violations on Syrians, specifically the recent attacks on the cities of Hama, Deir ez-Zor, and other Syrian cities,” according to Radwan Ziadeh, a participant in the talks.
“We need the US to lead at the Security Council to get more sanctions at the UN level,” he said, and “to refer the crimes against humanity committed in Syria to the international criminal court.”
UN leader Ban Ki-moon said Syria’s president has “lost all humanity” as the UN Security Council began to address the government’s deadly crackdown.
Syrian opposition groups have been reluctant to call for foreign intervention, insisting on local ownership of the protest movement, but the intensity of the repression appears to be forcing a recalculation.
“We’re not expecting much from the U.N., but this can’t go on,” said one opposition figure. “We need intervention, whether that’s military or helping arm us, if [Mr. Assad] is going to continue to wage war as it looks like he’s planning to do.”
Russia and China, two of the five permanent council members, have previously threatened to veto efforts to pass a resolution condemning Syria. But the emerging democracies of Brazil, India and South Africa have also spoken out against a resolution.
Syrian democracy and human rights advocates called on South Africa, Brazil, and India to support a UN Security Council resolution condemning the government’s use of violence against peaceful protesters. “We expect South Africa, Brazil, and India, great countries who have struggled against repressive governments, to support a people’s legitimate demands for freedom and dignity,” said a joint statement by the Syrian Human Rights Organization, the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Previous crackdowns failed to halt the protest movement’s momentum, but nor has the opposition been able to undermine the regime’s bastions of support, notably in the military and the powerful business communities of Damascus and Aleppo.
Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where largely professional militaries turned against the regimes, Syria’s military is highly politicized and patrimonial, with an officer corps dominated by the ruling Alawite sect.
“We are seeing some defections but nothing near the critical mass that might indicate the beginnings of a serious mutiny by Sunni soldiers,” said Andrew Terrill, Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College.
But the army is being stretched as anti-government demonstrations continue to spread, according to a new report.
“There are signs that army units are increasingly identifying with protesters, especially where security forces are employing violence against unarmed demonstrators,” according to Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Although the regime’s forces are not defeated and the army’s potential tears may prove to be small, the dynamics for greater problems are in place. Given the widespread nature of the disturbances, the regime cannot mass personnel in more than a few places.”
The military is highly-disciplined and unlikely to fracture any time soon, but it lacks the resources and capacity to quell the protests, said analyst Firas Abi Ali.
“If they don’t have enough loyal units to take Hama, they don’t have enough loyal units to take on much bigger cities like Homs, Aleppo or Damascus,” he said.
“They don’t have an enough troops who are loyal .. So we have entered a chronic stage of this struggle in which neither the army nor the people will achieve a decisive result,” said Talal al-Mayhani, a British-based academic, who recently returned from Damascus.
Fear of instability and mutual economic interests have led the powerful business community to support the Assad regime – so far, at least, writes Sami Moubayed, editor-in-chief of the Damascus-based Forward magazine. But that could change soon, he suggests, due to three factors: growing unemployment, absence of legitimate community leadership and demographics:
Damascus, more so than Aleppo, is a melting pot for all Syrians. It is packed with people from rural Damascus, Daraa, Homs, Hama, Idlib and rural Idlib. It is those people who are likely to demonstrate in Damascus, rather than the Damascenes themselves, and those people, naturally, do not take their orders from the business community of Damascus.
The business community should be pressured to view the Assads as “a bottomless drain” on the country, writes Elliot Abrams. Sectarianism is endemic to Syrian politics, so it is essential to separate the Assads from the broader Alawite community and ensure that the opposition gives assurances on respecting minority rights. Nevertheless, the fate of the regime will likely be determined elsewhere, he suggests:
….the single event that would most help bring down the Assads would be the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. It still isn’t clear today if the lesson of the Arab Spring is that dictators are doomed or that dictators willing to shoot peaceful protesters can win. Once Gadhafi goes, the oxygen Libya is sucking from the Arab struggle for democracy will circulate again.
The Obama administration’s strategy of effecting a “managed transition” has demonstrably failed, says Washington-based analyst Hussein Ibish.
“Concerns about stability are understandable, but it’s impossible not to recognize that the Assad regime itself is now the greatest source of instability,” he writes. “Indeed, it is undoubtedly dragging Syria toward civil war, quite possibly on a sectarian basis, and is most probably doing so deliberately.”