Syrian Revolt Reaches Outskirts of Damascus

The Free Syrian Army makes gains, but Bashar Assad’s security forces are largely holding up.

The Syrian capital of Damascus at night, September 20, 2009
The Syrian capital of Damascus at night, September 20, 2009 (Lazhar Neftien)

Despite the Arab League’s decision to extend, and then suspend, its monitoring mission in Syria in reaction to the uptick in violence, the conflict in this historically rich nation is becoming increasingly more violent.  What was once a near resemblance of other “Arab Spring” protests, with hundreds of thousands marching for human rights and dignity, has churned into an armed confrontation between security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and defectors from the Syrian army.  It is now common to not only read about the crimes committed by the regime, which are horrific enough, but about retaliatory attacks from anti-Assad rebels as well.

The main armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army, is evolving into the only force capable of inflicting pain on Assad’s powerful security apparatus. And to the consternation of President Assad and his generals, the militia continues to grow in numbers, with dozens of soldiers at a time ditching their Syrian army uniforms to join the rebels’ ranks.

Assad’s most vocal political critics in the opposition Syrian National Council are undoubtedly worried about where this dispute is going.

The SNC has tried to put forth a nonviolent solution to Assad’s indiscriminate crackdown, such as pressing Arab League officials to hand over the Syria portfolio to the United Nations Security Council, which is more trained and experienced in keeping the peace and holding deplorable governments accountable for their abuses. But with Russia stonewalling any opening for a Security Council resolution against the Assad regime, real, not just symbolic, action from the United Nations is far off.

The Syrians getting shot at every day, despite the presence of Arab League observers, are short of options. As one Syrian defector told the Washington Post, “We can’t get weapons, and we don’t have help. We need a no-fly zone.”

That request, however, is out of the question, at least for now. France, Great Britain and the United States, the three states that are trying their hardest to crank up the pressure on Assad, have not included any sort of military action in their list of options. Washington, ever fearful of instability and learning from its mistakes in Iraq, is not keen on using force without plying through of the other alternatives. Many would like to see Assad overthrown but not at the cost of opening up a Pandora’s
box.

Syria is one of the most diverse and heterogeneous societies in the Middle East, with Muslims living in the same neighborhoods as Christians and Alawites sharing the same cities as Sunnis. Eliminate a strongman and the prospects of a multiethnic society simply working out their differences without further violence is highly unrealistic. Washington and its allies are thus limited in options, with economic sanctions and international condemnation the two safest choices for now.

Therein lays the difficulty and complexity of the Syrian crisis. Bashar al-Assad is clearly at his most isolated. Even the Islamist militant group Hamas, which has been a stalwart ally of the Syrian government since Bashar’s time, is packing up its suitcases and looking for a new home. But his security forces, ruled by family loyalists and packed with officers from Assad’s own Alawite sect, have retained their core. Soldiers are deserting but they are mainly low level Sunni soldiers, tired of shooting fellow Syrians in the back. Only one Syrian general has joined the opposition since the crackdown began last March.

There appears be no end to this cycle of tit for tat violence. The FSA may be making strides and expanding its operational reach to new territory but it is difficult to believe that any of those gains can be sustained without either a wholesale international military support or a sudden influx of new recruits that thins out the Syrian army.

The Syrian military’s latest offensive around the suburbs of Damascus is both a positive and a negative development from the point of the view of the opposition. Positive, because it exemplifies how overstretched Assad’s security forces have become over the last ten months; negative due to faster death tolls on all sides.

One thing is certain. Syria is in the middle of a whirlpool and Bashar al-Assad will use all of his firepower and military resources to not only instill pain on millions of his opponents but on the hope that his supporters in the establishment will continue to back him out of fear of what could come next.