As the World Protests, Syria’s Isolated Regime Sticks to Its Guns

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An image grab from a video uploaded to YouTube showing Syrian troops deployed in the northwestern town of Idlib, Aug. 9, 2011. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The embattled regime of Bashar Assad is losing foreign friends fast, but not the will to punish its enemies at home. The Syrian government has been circling the wagons, making hollow promises for reform while keeping up a sustained, brutal campaign against the country’s opposition. According to some counts, over 2,000 people have died amid five months of bloody crackdowns. On Aug. 10, Syrian tanks stormed through a number of towns on the border with Turkey, killing at least one and wounding over a dozen others. The same day, human rights groups say at least 18 were killed in the western city of Homs. Earlier this week, after pounding the city of Hama — site of an infamous massacre of dissidents in 1982 — the Syrian military launched strikes on the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and wrested control of it from the clan militias and opposition groups who had claimed the city center. TIME contributor Oliver Holmes writes that the Assad regime, dominated by Alawites, a minority Muslim sect, is finding itself embroiled in what may become a full-fledged sectarian civil war.

The scale of the government-sanctioned bloodshed has appalled many in the international community, and now stirred some of Syria’s cautious neighbors. Over the weekend, after doing nothing for weeks, Saudi Arabia and a number of other Arab states withdrew their ambassadors and denounced the violence wielded by the Syrian government against its people. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, flew in on Tuesday for talks with Assad, while his boss, the influential Prime Minister Reccep Tayip Erdogan, called for an outright cessation of hostilities and concrete steps toward political reforms within fifteen days. A delegation of envoys from rising powers India, South Africa and Brazil arrived on Wednesday and met with Assad’s Foreign Minister, urging the government to relent its onslaught. But no one so far seems to have had very much success.

As in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, the Assad regime appears to have decided to grimly hold on to all the levers of power in the country — as Assad’s family has for the past four decades — and root out its opponents, no matter the consequences. While repeatedly making vacuous proclamations of reform, it sends tanks at its own people, blaming Islamist interlopers and “armed groups” for inciting trouble. But unlike in Libya—or, rather, in part because of the folly of the ongoing NATO imbroglio there—Western military action to bring a halt to the massacres is out of the question (as well it should be).

For the little that it’s worth, the U.S. slapped its own sanctions on the Assad regime and there are growing indications the White House will call for Assad’s departure. (It’s worth bearing in mind that the Obama Administration only called for Gaddafi’s exit well after Western bombs had started falling in Libya.) But, as has long been clear, American displeasure carries less weight than it did in the past. U.S. officials, among others, are steering the debate over Syria toward the U.N. Security Council, where China and Russia remain obstacles toward tough action. Though not a permanent member, India holds the presidency of the Council in August and has used the crisis in Syria as yet another opportunity to play a more conspicuous role on the international stage.

But don’t expect much. Caught between a growing impulse in Indian diplomacy to find common cause with U.S. policy and an older tradition of non-alignment and solidarity with Arab states and other developing countries, it’s doubtful very much leadership on the matter will emerge from New Delhi. Turkey, which shares a border with Syria and maintains extensive trade interests with its southern neighbor, may have the most important part to play among regional power brokers in the weeks ahead. Desperate to avoid the stigma of Western intervention, officials in Ankara have taken pains to stress their efforts are not being made in concert with the U.S.

For all Assad’s seeming staying power, the consensus seems to be that his regime has spilled too much blood and has passed the proverbial point of no return. But it’s up to a motley, divided and effectively leaderless Syrian opposition to hasten real revolution. Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and blogger at Syria Comment, argues on Foreign against any deliberate Western measures to foment regime change:

A growing chorus of policy experts in Washington are calling for the United States to get serious about Syria. They want Washington to take charge of regime change, hastening the downfall of the Assad government. This is bad advice. The U.S. should not try to hit the fast-forward button on the process of revolutionary change overtaking Syria. It will end in tears, and Syria will end up a mess.

Far better, says Landis, that the regime implodes from within, through defections in the military and the gradual fraying of its pivotal alliances with the influential Sunni business elites of Aleppo and Damascus. In the event the Baathist state does collapse, Syria would be better served by a leadership formed organically by the opposition than by the imperatives and preferences of Western policy makers. In the meantime, though, the diplomatic circus rolls on. One can imagine the thousands of Syrians braving death on the country’s streets every day aren’t paying very much attention.