Syria’s main opposition today condemned a UN-proposed peace plan endorsed by the Security Council, while Bashar al-Assad’s regime maintained its attacks on civilians and opposition activists.
“Such statements, issued amid continued killings, offer the regime the opportunity to push ahead with its repression in order to crush the revolt by the Syrian people,” said Samir Nashar, member of the executive committee of the Syrian National Council.
In the worst of several violent incidents today, three children were among 10 civilians killed when security forces fired on their bus in the northern town of Sermeen as they tried to escape to Turkey, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
With the crisis deteriorating, the West’s democracies “ought to reflect on the Syrian conflict’s strong resemblance to the situation in Yugoslavia in the 1990s,” writes Radwan Ziadeh, a spokesperson for the Syrian National Council and executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“Now, as then, oppressed populations are being asked to invest their hopes in a U.N. envoy,” he writes in The New Republic. “It is at times like these that history’s tendency to repeat itself has the perverse and horrific effect of forcing us to relive a nightmare.”
If the divided opposition, which has failed to coalesce under a single commander, ever does get outside military support it will be too late to be effective, said Washington-based Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid.
“Why should foreign intervention be wrong when people demand it?” a Homs-based activists asked Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident who runs the must-read Syrian Revolution Digest blog. “Russia, Iran, Hezbollah all support the regime. That’s a form of intervention, isn’t it? We are not fighting just the regime, we are fighting foreign states that stand behind it. So make this an equal battle for us. We can take care of ourselves.”
The opposition may gain some encouragement from Turkey’s efforts to unify Assad’s opponents and indications that Russia is cooling towards its ally in Damascus.
“Russia will not be focused on keeping Assad in power for the sake of keeping Assad in power,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank.
Ankara has shifted its stance from an initially lukewarm approach to the Arab Spring, analysts suggest, but it is finding it difficult to convert the soft power appeal of the ‘Turkish model’ into hard power leverage to effect change in Syria.
“They wanted to position themselves on the right side of history, expecting the Syrian regime to fall in weeks as in Tunisia and Egypt,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“Right now there is a disappointing situation for Ankara,” he said. “What they banked on didn’t happen. Their bluff and bluster was met by bluff and bluster from the Syrian side and now we are certainly in a bit of a stalemate.”
Turkey will host an April 1 conference of Syrian opposition groups with Western and Middle Eastern government officials. But recent rifts within the exile-based Syrian National Council confirm that the opposition is in what one analyst calls “a state of chaos.”
“The SNC, which has been the dominant external leadership and umbrella group for the opposition, and is led by Burhan Ghalyun, is facing a crisis,” says Joshua Landis, a leading Syria expert:
It has been extremely successful in getting the international community organized to isolate the al-Assad regime and to turn against it. Ausama Monajed, as a right-hand man of Ghalyun’s, was largely responsible for getting both Europe and the United States to sanction Syria within an inch of its life. But what we’ve discovered in the last few weeks is that they failed to get a Western invasion of Syria, which would have capped their success and brought down the regime.
Assad has not been willing or able to compromise ”because his Ba’athist, one-party state is extremely brittle,” Landis tells the Council on Foreign Relations:
When Assad first came to power in 2000, there was what was called a Damascus Spring, and he told Syrians to criticize and to say what they wanted, and within three weeks, almost every Syrian group that had organized itself was asking for an end to Allawite monopoly of the political power. They were asking for freedom and an end to dictatorship, and that’s why the Damascus Spring lasted for only about a month. It was very clear that the system is highly corrupt and it’s highly coercive, built on patronage and loyalty to a family. Once you undermine that, it will crumble.
“The Alawites are lost and they don’t know what to do,” says Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “For 40 years they have identified with the regime but now with the rise of sectarianism Syrians are having to put hatred in their hearts.”
But not all of them, writes Roula Khalaf:
Fadwa Suleiman(above) is held up as a hero of the Syrian revolution, partly because she is a famous young actress playing the role of her life. But she also hails from the Alawite minority sect that has ruled Syria for 40 years – and by joining the revolt she has taken a higher risk than most.
“Come and see reality, see your brothers in blood peacefully demanding freedom,” Ms Suleiman tells her fellow Alawites in a video recorded from the religiously mixed city of Homs.
If Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been unrelenting in waging war against a largely Sunni Muslim uprising, they are even less forgiving towards one of their own. They have been hunting down Ms Suleiman for months, forcing her into hiding.
“Sectarian violence in Homs would be worse if it weren’t for Fadwa Suleiman,” says Peter Harling, a Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group. “She has tried to contain the damage among Alawites who have been hijacked by the regime.”
Bashar’s father, “Hafez al-Assad dismantled the Alawite identity,” says Harling. “It’s even hard to speak of an Alawite religion today – their sheikhs [religious scholars] don’t carry much weight in the community.”
Nevertheless, the sect feels obliged to support the regime, says Lebanese Alawite businessman.
“It’s an existential question for the Alawites,” he says. “This regime protects them and if it goes we will have an Islamist government. This uprising is not only about Bashar, it is about changing the whole ideology of Syria.”
International intervention is the only way to avoid the conflict’s escalation into sectarian civil war and avoid a repeat of the 1990s’ Balkans carnage, says Ziadeh, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. The parallels with the former Yugoslavia are even evident in the “political sensibilities” of Assad and Slobodan Milosovic, he writes:
[T]hese two men also shared a similarly cynical political sensibility: Any and all ideologies were subordinate to their desire to establish personal power. Both had a record of supporting unity when it was in their interests, only to switch to supporting virulent sectarian nationalism when circumstances changed. In short, they are leaders who acquire influence in the least sustainable of fashions, by constantly manipulating their own people.
Ziadeh will be a witness at a Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing on the Human Rights Crisis in Syria: Tuesday, March 27, 2012. 9:30 AM – 11:00 AM, Rayburn B-318, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
Since March 2011, growing numbers of anti-government protests in Syria have been met with a brutal crackdown by the Syrian government, including widespread killings, torture, and indiscriminate shelling of cities. More than 8,000 people have been killed, and over 200,000 people have been displaced. The Syrian government is even using landmines as a deadly tactic to prevent civilians from escaping.
This hearing will examine the systemic and grave human rights abuses by the Syrian government, and the impact of those abuses on the Syrian people.
Panel I: Robert Ford, U.S. Ambassador to Syria. Panel II: Maria McFarland, Deputy Washington Director, Human Rights Watch; Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA; Andrew Tabler, Next Generation Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy’ Radwan Ziadeh, Visiting Scholar, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
If you have any questions, please contact the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at 202-225-3599 or email@example.com.