Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Do Syrians need our Assistance to Halt Ongoing Massacres?

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The Assad regime in Syria has been continuing its vicious assault on the city of Hama, which began on the weekend. As The Jerusalem Post reports:

AMMAN - Syrian tanks pounded residential neighborhoods across the city of Hama on Monday in the heaviest barrage of a two-day assault to crush street demonstrations against President Bashar Assad, witnesses said.

Earlier on Monday, residents said at least four civilians were killed by tank fire on the second day of attacks on the city, where memories are still vivid of the brutal suppression of an uprising in 1982.

Intense shelling began again after Ramadan evening prayers, concentrating on districts near the al-Bilal roundabout in the northwest of the city, the Jarajmeh district in the east and northern neighborhoods near the Omar bin al-Khattab mosque.

Some amateur footage, allegedly (but unverifiably) from the current Hama operation has been collated by The Telegraph (UK) and can be viewed below:

These atrocities have prompted an outcry in the international media; although, as The Spectator's Daniel Korki pointed out, the responses of world leaders have been somewhat muted. In fact, the Lowy Institute's Roger Shanahan has written some damning criticisms of Western, specifically Australian, leaders for neglecting their "responsibility to protect" Syrians.

In an editorial today, The Telegraph (UK) makes a similar point, but further contrasts the severe reluctance of the UN to tackle Syria with its eagerness to intervene in Libya only a few months earlier.

Syria's president Bashar al-Assad is responding to popular unrest in that country in precisely the same way as did Colonel Gaddafi in Libya - with brutal suppression by a well-equipped military. The difference between the two countries is that the international community was prepared to intervene to prevent the massacre of Libyan citizens, but there will be no such intervention in Syria. William Hague, the [British] Foreign Secretary, said yesterday that there was not even a "remote possibility" of military action against the Assad regime ... Mr Hague called for the UN to pass a resolution to condemn the violence - though he did so in the knowledge that this is highly unlikely to happen. Both Russia and China maintain that the UN has no business interfering in other countries, regardless of what excesses are being perpetrated.

So while the US and EU have imposed sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on senior members of the regime, the UN has proved strikingly ineffectual. Indeed, far from holding Syria to account, it has just extended an economic development partnership with the Syrian government. In such circumstances, is it any wonder that Syria's embattled pro-democracy protesters feel that they are entirely on their own?

Some opinions, however, seem to welcome the idea that the Syrian protesters should feel, as The Telegraph put it, "entirely on their own". Bassma Kodmani, the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, has written an article in The New York Times where he calls for no Western intervention, arguing that Western support for the protesters would delegitimise them in Syrian society.

In Syria, anyone who calls for outside intervention is likely to be branded a traitor; any Western threat of military action would therefore hurt the opposition more than the regime. Outside powers can play a useful role by declaring they will not use military force. Such a statement would weaken Mr. Assad's argument that the uprising is the result of foreign meddling and remove a major source of anxiety among Syria's hesitant majority.

Instead, Kodmani believes that the problem can only be solved within Syria. He observes that Assad's Alawite sect dominates the military and the security forces and argues that many of their operatives would defect, undermining Assad's ability to continue repressing the dissentors, if only they felt safe to do so. 

What is keeping Mr. Assad in power is the extensive security apparatus that was engineered by his father, Hafez al-Assad, and is dominated by their fellow Alawites, a minority Shiite sect. Alawites, who constitute just 12 percent of Syria's population, have mostly thrown their support behind Mr. Assad, fearful that if he is overthrown they will be massacred. If the democratic opposition in Syria is going to succeed, it must first convince the Alawites that they can safely turn against the Assad regime.

...The onus falls on the Sunni majority to reassure Alawites and other minorities like Christians, Druse and Shiites - who believe they need the regime's protection - that they will not be subjected to acts of vengeance. These Sunni religious and political leaders can save Syria from its sectarian demons. Only Syrians can initiate this delicate process; foreign governments, whether Arab or Western, have limited roles to play. The Syrian psyche is shaped by memories of foreign interference, something the Assad regime did not invent, but has exploited.

As this blog has previously noted, Syria is currently being hit with sectarian violence - meaning that any fear that the Alawites have of danger to themselves were Assad to fall is probably well-founded. That said, some doubts have been raised as to whether or not the Alawite security apparatus can continue to repress the Syrian opposition indefinitely. For instance, The Washington Institute's Jeffrey White has pointed-out that the current situation in Syria has over-extended these agencies already. He goes on to argue that were the situation to deteriorate further, Assad's forces would struggle to maintain any kind of control over the country.

No area of the country seems secure except perhaps the Alawi heartland in the northwest. With the important exception of Aleppo ... disturbances have erupted in more than fifty localities so far, including Homs, Latakia, Deraa, Qamishli, and Abu Kamal. Prior to this weekend, Hama had essentially passed out of government control and Dayr al-Zawr threatened to do the same ... The regime is also increasingly concerned about the borders, as it seeks to prevent refugees from leaving Syria and arms and opposition personnel from entering.

... The government must also guard against sabotage of national infrastructure. The past few weeks have seen several attacks on oil facilities and one train derailment, all of undetermined origin. If such incidents mount in numbers and seriousness, the regime will have to stretch its forces even thinner to protect key facilities.

... The challenging and dynamic environment that the Syrian army is caught up in has begun to produce serious signs of strain in its capacity, loyalty, and cohesion ... Given the widespread nature of the disturbances, the regime cannot mass personnel in more than a few places. The continuing pressure of the demonstrations, which are liable to swell during Ramadan, will stretch the army still thinner, with more defections likely given the regime's increasingly violent tactics. As the army becomes less reliable, strain will increase on the regime protection forces, stretching them further and tiring them faster.

With involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and - most recently - Libya, it is understandable that the West is reluctant to launch any new military offensives. That said, White's article implies that Syria's military forces are already stretched to breaking point and it would only take a small push for them to crumble. Of course, these issues are always difficult to predict with any accuracy. One thing, however, is certain: any effort that does result in Assad's fall will be a boon not only for Syrians, but for the entire region - a case made compellingly by American analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht in the newly posted August edition of the Australia/Israel Review.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz