Syrian President Doubling Down

Bashar al-Assad seems determined to kill his way to a resolution.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad listens to a question from a reporter in Paris, December 9, 2010
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad listens to a question from a reporter in Paris, December 9, 2010 (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)

The noose around Bashar al-Assad’s neck is tightening. Five months into a nationwide anti-government protest movement that shows no signs of abating, the Syrian president and his inner circle of advisors and security officials have decided to step up the aggression against cities and towns that were overtaken by pro-democracy sentiment. The suburbs of Damascus, quiet and largely insulated from the unrest until last month, have adapted into an extension of the marches further south and west — a dangerous escalation for the regime that has tried to retain its base of support in Syria’s two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus.

Further southeast, the central Syrian city of Hama is in ruins from the aftermath of the most horrendous military assault since demonstrations stared in March — perpetuated by Assad’s most loyal units of the security services. The streets of Hama are deserted, filled with compacted garbage, destroyed homes, collapsed buildings and the decaying corpses of the “martyrs” who put their lives on the line to defend their rights. Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to ruble from the tank shelling and machine gun fire sporadically aimed by Syria’s most elite troops. And while the casualty count is nowhere near the 20,000 that were ordered by Bashar’s father in 1982, the military incursion had a devastating psychological impact nonetheless. Yet just as Syrian protesters have refused to cower from government intimidation, the residents of Hama are ready to rebuild their city and pick up where they left off.

Arab states, long weary of which direction the Syrian demonstrations would go, are now fed up with Assad’s reliance on brute force. In the most vocal condemnation from an Arab leader yet, Saudi king Abdullah released a pressing statement on state television lashing out at Syrian authorities, delivering an ultimatum to Assad either to reform or risk further confrontation with the rest of the Arab world.

Bahrain and Kuwait followed the Saudis’ lead, recalling their ambassadors from Syria in a move that will surely raise the heartbeat of Syrian officials further. The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League — a body that rarely criticizes its Arab members — jumped on the bandwagon as well, expressing “distress” over Syria’s deteriorating situation. (After some 2,000 casualties, that may be something of an understatement.)

The only countries in the Middle East that have either remained silent or come out in support of Syria’s crackdown are Iran and the Hezbollah led government of Lebanon, two of Bashar al-Assad’s allies.

In the meantime, the Obama Administration is trying to decide whether finally to cut off Assad for good. The State Department has avoided to completely disavow the regime due to the unpredictability that could arise from a political vacuum. A condemnation would be a huge shift in the administration’s Syria policy which only a year ago was centered on engaging Assad and weaning him away from Iran’s political orbit.

At no time has Assad been as isolated from the international community as he is now.

Even so, Damascus does not appear to have received the message. That, or it simply doesn’t care what others think. Syrian forces have entered Deir ez-Zor, an eastern city in the desert overwhelmingly composed of Sunnis with deep connections to their tribal brethren across the Iraqi border. The military is using a familiar tactic — shell the city with tanks, cut off neighborhoods and send in troops to kill and frighten citizens who have been participating in the uprising. The only difference this time around is the location — Deir ez-Zor is a heavily armed Sunni city whose residents are not shy to fire back.

With Assad’s maneuver into Deir ez-Zor, he is daring the Sunni tribesmen who are already upset with the government’s desertion of the area and mismanagement of the province’s agricultural economy to retaliate.

If cooler heads don’t prevail, Syria could be in for a Libya type scenario with the Syrian state divided and the peaceful demonstrations taking on an increasingly violent turn. But if the tribes do hold back, they will be susceptible to what the Saudi king has called the “death machine.” Either way, Assad is doubling down on the violent option and resisting the world’s call for a peaceful resolution to the uprising.