More than 200 Syrians have been massacred in the rebellious Hama region, say opposition sources, after the village of Tremseh was bombarded by helicopter gunships and tanks before being stormed by militiamen.
“If confirmed, it would be the worst single incident of violence in 16 months of conflict,” reports suggest
The site of the near the city of Hama, an epicenter of the 17-month-old uprising, was the first mass killing since United Nations cease-fire monitors were forced to suspend their work in Syria a month ago because conditions were too dangerous for them. Activists in Hama posted a video on Youtube (above), accusing the government of “ethnic cleansing in Hama,” and said the killings in Tremseh were “unlike any massacre that has previously occurred in Syria.”
The news broke as Syrian President Bashar Assad attempted to seize the diplomatic initiative by proposing Ali Haidar, his minister of reconciliation, as the regime’s representative in U.N.-sponsored talks to establish a transitional government.
Haidar was “not so bad a man” and “his hands aren’t dirty with blood,” said Menhal Barish, a senior official with the opposition Syrian National Council, while rejecting the idea that he could play a role in any political transition.
Other SNC figures were less charitable.
His son Ismael was killed in March in what the government described as an armed terrorist attack. Some opposition figures, however, said Ismael was a well-respected pro-revolutionary activist who was killed by the regime, although this did not change his father’s position.
Diplomats said it was too early to tell whether Mr Assad’s move should be seen as an effort to quickly deliver an appointee and please Mr Annan or a delaying tactic by the regime.
“He has to be the right person – with the connection to the president and be acceptable to the opposition,” said one diplomat.
Assad’s appointment of Haidar , who “could not stand up to the smallest intelligence officer,” confirms that Assad is was not taking the Annan initiative seriously, said Samir al-Taqi, a Dubai-based Syrian analyst and former adviser to the foreign ministry.
The Syrian leader is “playing games with the Russians who know that if the Annan plan fails then they are in a worse position.”
According to reports, Moscow may be “starting to distance itself from the Syrian regime, due to the realization that Assad will eventually be ousted.”
Assad’s lack of commitment to a negotiated solution is evident from his discussions with UN envoy Kofi Annan (see the translation of his comments published on the ArabSaga blog.)
Annan’s latest peace plan – “perhaps better labeled the Annan-Assad plan — is a bad one,” writes Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute, for Near East Policy:
The regime does not seek political compromise with the opposition. Rather, it wants to break the opposition, killing as many people — armed, unarmed, and innocent — as necessary. That has been apparent from the beginning. Lately, however, the regime has been losing control of the military situation, and its position in the distant provinces is crumbling. Therefore, Assad probably regards the new proposal as a way to shore up his defenses, at least temporarily. This makes Annan’s plan a bad deal for the Syrian opposition and all those seeking the regime’s end, but a good deal for Assad.
The Annan initiative “extends yet another lifeline to the regime, undercuts the armed opposition’s growing effectiveness, and substitutes diplomatic bustle for progress toward ousting Bashar al-Assad,” White notes. “Like Annan’s previous ineffective ceasefire, the new plan is almost certainly doomed to failure — and the sooner the better.”
It seems that even Assad’s staunchest supporters are starting to plan for his demise.
Damascus is going the way of Tripoli, Libya, with a one-year delay,” according to a contributor to Khabaronline, a website affiliated with Ali Larjini, the speaker of Iran’s Majlis who is close with Supreme Leader Khamenei.
“The entire world is against Syria and we are standing here defending Syria, a country accused of crimes against humanity. We are not playing this game very well,” said Mohamad Ali Sobhani, a current diplomat who has served as Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon and Jordan.
But Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is “providing vital energy support” to Assad and conducting business with blacklisted Syrian firms, according to documents relating to the deals.
Opposition activists are divided on the question of stopping all energy exports to Syria.
“In general, we want to see all sanctions tightened and strengthened,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Washington-based Syrian dissident. “But the issue of diesel is complicated, as our own people could get hurt.”
Recent high-level defections suggest that the regime may be fragmenting, but some observers are cautious.
“There are indications to me that the Sunni insulation is cracking,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert who is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But these people are not from the core. It’s an important distinction.”
Two prominent defections over the past week “have stirred a debate within the opposition movement over what role—if any—former officials can play in ousting the Assad regime and serving in any transition government,” the Wall Street Journal reports:
Yet, the dearth of high-ranking defections, political or civilian, from the ruling Alawite sect also suggests that the peeling away of prominent Sunni officials could leave a small but still sturdy regime, comprised of the Assad family and the upper ranks of the military and security services. Analysts and activists say some Alawites—which comprise about 10% of Syria’s population of 23 million—have joined the opposition, but thousands in influential positions remain loyal.
“The recent defections are very important symbolically, because they signal the erosion of regime cohesion, and the assessment of key insiders that it is time to jump ship. But they are unlikely to have much impact beyond the symbolic,” said Steven Heydemann, a specialist on Syria and senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“I suspect that the established leadership of the opposition will make political use of high-level defectors, but will not be prepared, after 16 months of struggle, to give way to newcomers, even prominent ones, especially when these individuals have long histories of support for the regime and may have participated in the repression of the uprising,” Heydemann said.
International intervention in the conflict has been stymied by an absence of consensus and will among the world’s leading powers and fears that Syria’s complex mix of ethnic and religious affiliations could provoke civil war that will spread to neighboring states.
“Syria’s complexity also speaks to its geopolitical significance and therefore the international community’s interest in solving the conflict,” writes Ausama Monajed, executive director of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre:
Countries are reluctant to get involved in Syria because of its location and relations with its neighbours. But the longer the international community waits to help Syria, the less control it will have on the impact of the conflict on these relationships. Ousting Assad and assisting a democratic transition would serve multiple strategic interests of the US and its allies, by removing a key passageway and ally from the Iran-Hezbollah axis and disempowering a long-time foe of Israel and bully of Lebanon.
While opposition groups are reportedly receiving weapons from the Gulf States, “the Saudis and Qataris are incapable of running arms on the scale required,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Institutionally, intellectually and culturally, it’s not their cup of tea,” he contends. “To the extent Syria’s rebels have recently improved their performance, the reason is better coordination among the Free Syrian Army’s units, more defections from regime forces, and raids on regular army depots.”
Aside from the moral imperative to support Syria’s people, there is a strong strategic rationale for the West and its regional allies to be “more proactive in bringing about the end of the Assad regime,” argues Michael Herzog, the Milton Fine International Fellow at the Washington Institute, in a new report for BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre:
Speeding up the process of the regime’s collapse would avert the destabilizing consequences of a lengthy civil war, as well as dealing a blow to the radical, Iran-led alliance in the region. Although direct military intervention is not currently on the cards, there are other ways the West could intervene to help advance Assad’s fall. International involvement certainly comes with risks, but the costs of inaction will be far higher:
The Syrian government is battling a growing insurgency, with the situation developing into a civil war. Neither side is currently capable of overwhelming the other.
Whilst external powers interested in keeping Assad in power are actively protecting their interests, Western powers calling for Assad to go are relatively passive in supporting the Syrian opposition.
Continued relative Western passivity could result in a very long conflict within Syria, possibly lasting years, developing along sectarian lines and leading to the deaths of many more thousands with no clear outcome.
With Assad unwilling to negotiate his own departure and the bulk of the opposition unwilling to negotiate any solution with him, the Annan Plan has little prospect for success and a plan B is required.
The Assad regime’s departure would deal a serious blow to Iran and to the Iranian-led axis and encourage those in the region standing up to repression.
To maximise the chances of Assad’s departure, while minimising risks, European powers along with the US should adopt a more proactive policy through:
significantly increased, though carefully calibrated support for the opposition;
further isolation of the regime;
continuing to seek Russia’s cooperation, whilst realising that the more inevitable the fall of the regime looks, the more likely Russia is to engage in a process to replace it;
support for Syria’s neighbours in managing the fallout from the conflict;
preparation of contingency plans to secure Syrian strategic weapons and prevent humanitarian catastrophes;
taking an opportunity to mend fences between Israel and Turkey.
South Africa’s anti-Apartheid leader Bishop Desmond Tutu famously said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” notes Monajed.
“By not giving the Syrian people the tools they are asking for and need to bring down Assad, the international community is siding with him.”