Turmoil in Syria, Tough Options for Assad

by M Rama Rao

Four months after the ‘uprising, Syria is slowly but steadily slipping into the clutches of civil war. West Asia will face the brunt of this crisis not merely because of the new influx of refugees but because of the threat of Israeli intervention and Turkey’s plans for ‘safe zones’ for refugees within Syria, which has aligned with Iran.

Already Turkey is gearing up to house upto one million Syrians. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ordered the setting up two camps close to the Syrian border, opposite the Sunni town of Jisr al-Shughour. Each of these camps will hold upto five thousand people. So far some four thousand people from the Syrian border town, which is flanked by Christian and Alawite Muslim villages, have taken refugee in Turkey.

The growing protests underscore the scale of opposition to the Assad regime. Neither brute force nor promises of political reform has brought respite from gunfire. Washington appears to be targeting Iran through Syria as a part of its larger geo-political game. If Damascus can be detached Tehran that will be a big gain since what happens in Syria and with Syria will have a bearing on the entire region. It borders Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. A regional player of significant influence it has been a supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Erdogan has a vested interest in keeping the refugee problem under check. He doesn’t want a flood of Syrian Kurds into Turkey’s restive Kurdish region. Hence his denunciation of Assad regime, and willingness to support a UN resolution condemning Damascus amidst reports, which are not denied by Ankara as yet, that the Turkish military has drawn up plans to send several battalions of troops into Syria to carve out a “safe area” for Syrian refugees inside Syria itself.

On Friday July 8, President Basher al-Assad’s Baathist regime sent 5000 troops backed by a large column of tanks to Jisr al-Shughour, which is some 18km from the Turkish border. The assault was not unexpected though. The government claims that the action was a sequel to the mutiny in the local garrison and the last Sunday attack on the security forces that had left 120 dead. It appears that the Alawite Muslim officers ordered the police to fire at the crowds of Sunni protesters. And that order provided the spark for the rebellion.

Jisr al-Shughour has a history of rebellion against the ruling family. It witnessed an uprising led by Muslim Brotherhood in the eighties. Hefez al-Saeed, father of President Bashar al-Assad sent troops to put down the uprising.

There are reports of widespread anti-regime protests following Friday prayers. At least 28 people were shot dead at rallies across the country. Helicopter gunships reportedly fired machine guns to disperse large anti-government protests, in the first reported use of air power against the uprising. Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo, also reported unrest for the first time.

Maarat al-Numan, a village near Jisr al-Shughour witnessed the most deadly crackdown. It is about 52 kms south of Aleppo on the highway to Damascus. There are reports of demonstrations from Qabun district of the capital Damascus (death toll four), the Bosra al-Harir neighbourhood of southern Daraa province, where the unrest began ( toll two more), coastal resort of Latakia ( toll five) and in Idlib province (11 killed).

Last Thursday, tens of thousands of protesters in Hama, the fourth largest city, overwhelmed the down town Assi Square in what was by far the largest protest. Commentators recall that Hama is synonymous with the brutal crackdown by Hafiz al-Assad, nearly 30 years ago that killed an estimated 20,000 protestors led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Homs is another city that has become a centre of anti-government protests; it has been seen military occupation.

Fighting has also been reported from the towns of Al-Bukamal and Deir ez-Zor in the east of the country. Deir ez-Zor, one of Syria’s major oil and gas hubs close to the Iraqi border, has been a centre of anti-Assad protests since January of this year.

Pressure is mounting for ‘reform’ and ‘change’ on the Assad regime. France and Britain, supported by Germany and Portugal want to censure Syria in the UN Security Council. Their draft resolution calls political reforms and release of political prisoners.

It stops short of calling for either military action or additional sanction on Syria though it makes a case for “humanitarian” access to Syrians threatened by violence.

What such an access means for Damascus? It has been left sufficiently vague and Syrian regime naturally reads the provision as a pretext for future intervention.

While the US is also lending support to the draft, Russia and China are opposed to it. Both can torpedo the resolution invoking their veto power. The three non-permanent members, Brazil, South Africa and India have expressed reservations. India will take over the Security Council’s chairmanship in August for one month.

That there are not many sympathisers for President Assad in the West is clear from an ominous remark by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

Speaking in Brussels, he said whether Assad still has the legitimacy to govern his own country, ‘I think is a question everyone needs to consider’.

Washington appears to be targeting Iran through Syria as a part of its larger geo-political game. If Damascus can be detached Tehran that will be a big gain since what happens in Syria and with Syria will have a bearing on the entire region. It borders Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. A regional player of significant influence it has been a supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

As of now one thing is clear. The growing protests underscore the scale of opposition to the Assad regime. Neither brute force nor promises of political reform has brought respite from gunfire.

President Assad has offered a political dialogue and has set up a “national dialogue committee”. The offer has had few takers so far with the critics dubbing it as phoney. More over the dissidents are unwilling to go against the ‘mood’ amongst the swelling ranks of angry demonstrators.

Mohammed al-Abdullah, a spokesman for the Local Co-ordination Committees, which claims to represent many protesters, told Al Jazeera, “Talk of any dialogue with the regime is a disgrace to the blood of the martyrs.”

The US and French ambassadors to Syria have made “contact” with opposition leaders in Hamas, which something unusual. Generally diplomats keep the foreign office of their host country in the loop whenever they venture of the capital or meet political leaders including the leading lights of the ‘opposition’.

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Journalist, South Asian Analyst