Syria’s Crisis Deepens: Does Internationalization Loom?

The events of the past five days in Syria may be a game changer, both domestically and internationally. Last Thursday, opposition forces said, 100 people were killed. Massacres were alleged in two towns. The daily death toll has been rising. On yesterday, Monday, AFP reported another 29 persons killed, including 23 civilians and 6 members of the security forces. Troops moved into the rebel-held town of Rankus north of Damascus, after besieging and shelling it for days. Rebels blew up a gas pipeline. Rebel troops, made up of deserters, ambushed a minivan carry 6 regime military personnel on their way to quell the rebellion.

On Sunday, the al-Hayat writing in Arabic had reported that 66 persons had been killed in violence. Some 22 of the dead were regime troops. That half the dead were combatants suggests a further militarization of the conflict.

Opposition spokesmen said that on Sunday troops killed at least 5 persons inside Damascus in neighborhoods taken over by the opposition. The army then went on to rebel-held Ghuta just east of the city, where at least 26 were dead in clashes after the regime sent in 2000 troops backed by 50 tanks. The fighting neared the capital itself. They described the battles as the fiercest of the whole uprising. “It was urban warfare,” once said. “There were corpses in the streets.”

Units of the armored division were sent to some six cities over the weekend, with the army shelling places such as Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zour, and Idlib. Regime use of tanks and artillery against its own population had provoked international intervention in Libya.

On Saturday, about 50 Syrian troops in the province of Homs had defected.

The contest between the Baath Party in Syria and its opposition over the past year has been surprising in its perseverence and longevity despite a stand-off that has given neither side any real reason for optimism. Usually when a popular movement has no real successes for months on end, it gradually peters out, as happened in Iran in 2009-2010. In contrast to Tunisia and Egypt, the movement had had little success in the capital or the second largest city, Aleppo. Massive crowds in the capital are important because they can be so large that security forces can no longer control them, and they can suddenly move on the party headquarters, the Ministry of the Interior, or the presidential palace. Their lack in Damascus has allowed the regime to survive. Opposition figures argue that the security forces are simply too strong in the capital, and that if there were less repression, the crowds would be out in large numbers. This argument is not entirely convincing. Egypt’s Amn al-Dawlah or state security police were no slouches either, after all.

But the extremeness of the violence in at least part of the capital this weekend marks a new level of challenge to the regime, and the very perseverence of the uprising all these long months, with the violence now spreading to the capital, bodes ill for the survival of President Bashar al-Assad. The high officer corps is loyal to the regime, being either relatives of the president or drawn from the same Allawi, Shiite sect as he. But the more brutal his army’s tactics, the less legitimacy he retains, and the brutality necessary to repress keeps being ratcheted up.

The intensification of the violence comes, as Ian Black at The Guardian notes, as the regional and international politics of the Syrian crisis is coming to a new boil. The Arab League’s observer mission, manipulated by the regime and proven useless, has been withdrawn. Two high Arab League officials are briefing the United Nations’ Ban-ki Moon and the League may go to the UN Security Council for an intervention, as it did with Libya. Russia expressed dismay at the Arab League decision. Russia has a naval base in Syria on the Mediterranean, and has long viewed Damascus as a client, going back to Soviet times, and wants to forestall UN intervention there.

The UNSC is expected to take up the Syria issue again on Tuesday. That the Security Council may become more aggressive in seeking an international resolution of the crisis frightens Bashar al-Assad, since most likely the international community would pressure him to step down and start a transition to a new order in Syria.

So far, Russia and China have run interference for Damascus at the UN. Russia may be especially reluctant to back down on Syria given the upcoming presidential election, in Which Vladimir Putin will want to look strong against the West. The Libya intervention was extremely unpopular in Russia, where it was seen as neo-imperialism, and forestalling American and European meddling in Syria might make Putin look strong at home.

On the other hand, the more brutal the regime becomes, and the more unpopular, the more Russia risks taking a big fall in the whole Arab world if the Baath collapses. Sami Moubayed argues that Russia is now backing an Arab League/ Saudi plan calling for Bashar al-Assad to delegate most of his power to his second in command, Farouk al-Sharaa, who should form a national unity cabinet with members of the opposition Syrian National Council in preparation for moving to new elections. (This plan resembles the Gulf Cooperation Council plan for Yemen, which, while so far implemented, has not worked very well). But that Russia is planning to meet Syrian oppositionists and seems to be content with al-Assad being pushed at least somewhat aside indicates that the president’s days may be numbered.

23 Responses

    • The writer claims that the reports of atrocities by Assad’s forces are made up as part of a propaganda campaign.

      I think that’s all we need to know to judge the merit of that particular piece.

    • Here’s a video uploaded by a former Syrian soldier who defected. That should put paid to the absurd notion this is part of a foreign conspiracy

      link to youtube.com

      And this NY Times writeup of the latest says it all – link to nytimes.com – with the money quote from the Syrian defector: “Hitler died in Germany, but awoke in Syria.”

      • You can’t possibly be asserting that the Syrian opposition does not have access to resources, including weapons, based from Turkey, Jordan and northern Lebanon.

        To say there is no foreign component is absurd.

        You can reasonably say that there is substantial domestic support for the opposition, but not that there is no foreign conspiracy.

      • Also, Assad as the rebirth of Hitler?

        You should feel embarrassed for repeating that. I could respond in kind about the US’ allies or about Barack Obama, but I won’t.

  1. It is unclear how much contact the SNC has with people who live in Syria. There is much division amongst the opposition, both inside and outside of the country. The UK’s “The Times” reported that Saudi Arabia and Qatar will begin funding the SNC as well as armed opposition groups. What kind of revolution embraces a theocratic monarchy like Saudi Arabia?

    • What kind of revolution embraces a theocratic monarchy like Saudi Arabia?

      Any revolution that has the chance?

      Well, what kind of revolution embraces an absolutist monarchy like France? The answer is, the Continental Army during the American revolution.

  2. [...] Juan Cole: The contest between the Baath Party in Syria and its opposition over the past year has been surprising in its perseverence and longevity despite a stand-off that has given neither side any real reason for optimism. Usually when a popular movement has no real successes for months on end, it gradually peters out, as happened in Iran in 2009-2010 [...]

  3. If you take the Libyan mission and eliminate the popular support in the country for foreign intervention, the support of the Arab League, and the support of all five permanent UN Security Council members, you get the situation in Syria.

    That was tried recently; it’s called Operation Iraqi Freedom. I don’t see any of the NATO countries champing at the bit to try that again.

    • What was the total amount of people killed in Libya?

      How many times lower over a longer period of time is the total amount of people killed in Syria?

      • You bring up another reason why Libya was a special case: even the actions of Assad in trying to put down this rebellion pale in comparison to what Gadaffi was doing, and what he intended to do in Benghazi. There was greater interest from the international community and regional actors in a protective mission, because the humanitarian crisis was even worse.

        I just can’t agree with those who claim that the Libya operation was a model for things to come. It’s much more likely to be a one-off, because it really was a perfect storm of circumstances that we’re not likely to see again.

        • Well you get to just make up “intentions”, because they can’t be tested. We can say Saddam “intended” to kill every single person in Iraq but thankfully George Bush invaded and saved over 20 million people.

          How could that be proven wrong?

          But because it couldn’t be proven wrong, it also is not really meaningful, just as your idea of what Gaddafi “intended” to do in Benghazi.

          How many actual people were killed in total in the Libyan uprising before the US/Nato intervention, and how many were killed after?

          How many multiples more people were killed after the Nato intervention than have been killed in Syria over a longer time?

        • Well, Arnold, you’re personal opinion aside, the world community was, indeed, pretty well convinced that there was a massive massacre in the offing at Benghazi. People like Samantha Powers, the people who are the foremost experts at how genocide as similar massive political crimes happen, took the threat quite seriously, and the world community found them quite credible.

          But I do find it odd that, after so helpfully pointing out that the death toll from Gadhaffi’s actions was significantly greater even than that in Syria, you’re now choosing to argue exactly the opposite and downplay the humanitarian situation.

          I think you’re just picking and choosing what you want to believe, based on its momentary convenience in a debate with a guy on the internet.

        • 1) I never said the death toll under Gadaffi before the Nato intervention was higher than in Syria. You may want to reread the post you responded to.

          2) I’ve never seen and don’t think you can provide a link that supports your apparent belief that the death toll under Gadaffi was higher.

          3) The world community believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. But didn’t have tangible evidence. Your thoughts about Gadaffi’s intentions – even if shared by other proponents of Nato intervention – is even weaker.

      • How about the 47000 civilians killed in 1982 in Hama according to the former east german secret service Stasi that was an ally of the syrian regime?. This incident have paralyzed the whole syrian society until today.

        “How many times lower over a longer period of time is the total amount of people killed in Syria?”

        according to whom?

        Why have the Assad Regime expelled all foreign Journalist from Syria?. How about the tens of thousands of political prisoners before and the tens of thousands more after the uprising?. How dare you talking about foreign intervention. As if iranian, russian and chinese intervention is no foreign intervention.

  4. It looks like Putin is beginning to nail down the formula for preserving his naval base under the next Syrian regime. Which would be a pretty amazing concession on the part of the Arab monarchies bankrolling the resistance. It would be like international recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence, at America’s expense.

    I guess authoritarian oil powers, whether pro or anti-US, will stick together.

    • It looks like Putin is beginning to nail down the formula for preserving his naval base under the next Syrian regime.

      What makes you say that?

      • The Russians are running interference for Assad in the UNSC. They and the Chinese are blocking a statement calling for Assad to step down.

  5. .
    No mention here of the extent of CIA and/or Mossad involvement in the opposition.
    This is a pretty hot topic in Syria, I think.

    Could someone provide some quantification of the dollars and manpower that US taxpayers are investing to remove the Opthalmologist from the Syrian Presidency,
    whether directly through the CIA, or indirectly through intermediaries ?

    While this would seem to run counter to core American values, overthrowing foreign governments that pose no threat to us,
    at least we aren’t spending nearly as much as we spent to overthrow Saddam,
    or anything near to what we’ll spend to overthrow the Iranian government.
    .

    • The rumor is that while the program is coordinated by US Ambassador Feltman, the funding is coming from Saudi Arabia following Feltman’s instructions.

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