In March 2011, only a week before the Syrian revolution sparked off, Michael Broning of Foreign Affairs wrote an article about the “Sturdy House that Assad Built”, arguing the robustness of the Syrian military dictatorship and its ability to deter country-wide, public sedition. More than two months later, after seeing the events unfolding on Syrian soil, he corrected his article and wrote “Cracks in the House of Assad”. This exhibits the extent to which the brave Syrian people have surprised policy experts, the international community, the regime and their own countrymen. Many political observers of Syrian origin were dubious about the revolution taking place at all, much less its ability to dismantle this iron-clad despotic regime. Such doubts were not unjustified, taking into consideration the ruthless nature of the regime, its criminal history and how far it was ready to go to crush any anti-government sentiment.
Now, more than six months after the start of Syria’s velvet revolution, there are many signs that the Assad regime is, indeed, falling apart.
Both the Syrian protesters and the government realize that their predicament is a one-way process. The people are demanding their much-deserved freedom and human rights, and the police state will continue to do what it does best – rule with an iron fist. In late April, I wrote that the Syrian people recognize that there is no turning back. If that truism applied then, it does much more so now. Hypothetically if the revolution were to come to a halt, not only will the people lose their opportune momentum, but they will also be subjected to savage retaliation intended to cleanse every house of Assad’s opponents. Eventually, though, the people’s perseverance will prevail. The regime cannot keep terrorizing the people of Syria forever and many activists have alluded to the lethargy of the regime’s military and security forces which are ordered to work round the clock to quell any rebellious activity.
Military defections are increasing countrywide in cities like Homs, Hama, Dar’aa, Idlib, Deir Al-Zour and even Damascus and its suburbs. This is one of the most critical issues facing the regime, especially as defections have even taken place from the elite republican guard. It is important to note that the number of defectors is not an accurate gauge of the army’s morale; the defection trend would rise rapidly if it wasn’t for soldiers’ genuine fear of reprisals. In addition, there are many who haven’t revealed their defection for tactical reasons or for personal safety. In reality, there is real misery in the ranks of the police and military, not least because of fatigue from facing the public unrest daily, and salaries are either withheld or paid late. There is a general reluctance to carry on in this way and a real possibility that the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria may provide the cover needed to generate mass defections that would deal a massive and potentially fatal blow to the Assad regime. The newly-formed “Free Syrian Army” is attempting to accomplish this by creating a liberated zone in Jabal Al-Zawiya in northwest Syria close to the Turkish border; this would serve as a refuge for military defectors.
The Assad security apparatus and its thugs have used appalling violence and repression against peaceful protestors. In reality, this is merely an extension of the regime’s long history of gross human rights violations and blatant disregard for human life. The regime is waging what seems like an all out war against civilians using tanks, fighter jets, heavy artillery and even warships. This reprehensible violence illustrates the regime’s political and moral bankruptcy and shows how weak it is. The crackdown has resulted in more than 2,700 being killed, tens of thousands taken prisoner and an alarming number of people wounded. The death toll is based on conservative UN estimates; the actual number is probably much higher. A new report released by Avaaz, the global humanitarian campaign group, puts the death toll at 5,300; that’s more than double the UN estimate.
Assad’s forces have sunk to a new low by beating the elderly, women and children; they have, without shame, resorted to killing, imprisonment, torture, gang rape and mutilation. What sparked the revolution was the torture of children from Dar’aa who painted popular Arab spring slogans in all innocence on a wall; it has been claimed that their fingernails were ripped off. Hamza Al-Khatib, a 13 year old who was tortured to death has become one of the symbols of the revolution. The many parents who are searching for imprisoned children are frequently summoned to receive their sons and daughters in body bags; a 19 year old girl in Homs, for example, was kidnapped and gang raped by Assad’s thugs and then handed back to her parents as a headless and limbless corpse. Sadly, there are many such cases. Many of these grotesque practices have been verified by obscene video recordings made by the perpetrators themselves. If we consider how much attention the regime pays to human rights accusations and media accountability, it is easy to believe that such recordings have been leaked in order to strike fear in the hearts of the people. As despicable as it may be, such sadistic videos are being sold for profit.
Syria has been ruled mercilessly by the Assad clan for more than four decades. Throughout that period, they promoted sectarian divisions by favouring their own Alawite minority and discriminating against the Sunni Muslim majority and other minorities. Despite that, Syrian society has been able to achieve a considerable degree of peaceful coexistence. Now that the regime finds its back against the wall, it is playing the sectarian card and inciting violence by arming the Alawites and spreading hateful graffiti on walls and inside places of worship, in a desperate attempt to hand on to power. Cynically, the regime blames its opponents for instigating a sectarian civil war while portraying itself as the counterbalance against such an occurrence. It is worth noting that the protest movement has raised banners condemning sectarianism and promoting unity.
The Assad regime has also manipulated the Palestine question and there is increasing realization that it has been exploited to justify the regime’s existence and its “right” to tyrannize the people with several decades of emergency law. This was made obvious when Bashar Assad allowed hundreds of youths to agitate at the Syrian Golan-Israel border for the first time in forty years on the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba. It was a multi-faceted message meant to divert attention from the Syrian conundrum and show Israel that Syria was the best protector of its neighbour’s borders. Thus, it is not surprising that most Israeli media, which have always cast Assad as the villain of the piece, have expressed real fear that he may be overthrown. Rami Makhlouf, the notorious tycoon and Assad’s maternal cousin, put it this way: “Security for Israel stems from security for Syria.” Alas for Assad and his cronies, the Syrian people are finally telling the regime that supporting occupied Palestine sincerely and living with human dignity and freedom are not mutually exclusive.
As the Syrian crisis grows, Bashar Assad may lose what used to be unconditional support from his most valuable ally, Iran. There is evidence that Tehran is taking a closer, more pragmatic look at the situation and planning for a post-Assad Syria. This is corroborated by news of secret talks with the Syrian opposition in Paris recently. Furthermore, official government media in Iran is focusing more on the Syrian protest movement and the subsequent violent crackdown by the government. In addition, some Syrian opposition leaders look positively upon their most recent meeting with Russian government officials, and feel that Russia’s support for Assad may also start to wane, albeit slowly. As for Turkey, Syria lost that ally long ago. Ankara has stopped several arms shipments to Syria and the abyss widened with the comments of Prime Minister Erdogan in liberated Tripoli: “Do not forget this: those in Syria who inflict repression on the people will not be able to stand on their feet because oppression and prosperity cannot exist together… The time of autocracies is over. Totalitarian regimes are disappearing. The rule of the people is coming.” From a practical point of view, the New York Times last week quoted several western intelligence sources predicating that Assad is on the edge and isn’t coming back.
Adding to Syria’s isolation, international pressure has been mounting and several world powers have called for Assad to step aside; Arab condemnation has been limited, but is growing. The recent finger-pointing exchange between the New York Times and Iraqi officials about Iraq asking Assad to step down may signal a change in Baghdad’s position. A few days back, there were calls to suspend Syria from the Arab League. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition is working hard to form a more homogeneous, united body to serve as an alternative, transition government.
The unrest has precipitated an economic crisis in Syria due to reduced commercial activity and foreign investment, restricted labour, closures and international sanctions. The most drastic step yet taken was the “crude oil and petroleum products” embargo implemented by the EU, Syria’s largest single trading partner. This was followed by the EU prohibition of investments in Syria’s oil sector. The last 6 months of military crackdown has also hurt the shipping industry as sources estimate a 35-40% drop in cargo volume at Latakia and Tartous, two of Syria’s main ports. An important shipping agent in Tartous reported a reduction in vessel exchange from 25-30 vessels daily to a low of 5-10. Furthermore, while the IMF had originally predicted a 3% growth in Syrian GDP back in April, its September “World Economic Outlook” modified that to a 2% decline. Turkey is also preparing sanctions against its Arab neighbour.
The repeated miscalculations of the Assad clan show how out of tune they are with the new reality facing them. The most salient example of this is the repeated announcement that the revolution is over and that normality is returning, while the protest movement is actually growing unabated. Other examples include but are not limited to childish actions such as media performances acted out for national television to frame the protestors, false testimony aired after torturing alleged conspirators, and the ongoing ridiculous attempts to justify the brutal crackdown. The government claims that the presence of armed gangs, terrorists, extreme Islamic elements and traitors makes the crackdown essential. In the light of such efforts, the cosmetic reforms introduced by Assad are fooling no one.
The regime has exhibited an obvious inability to institute reforms, much less convince the people that they are bona fide. This is because genuine reform requires laws and institutions and is impossible in the presence of military predominance. Assad and his comrades will understand that real reform can only lead to the complete downfall of their autocracy. The Syrian people have been hearing empty promises of reform for years, so the farcical directives made over the past 6 months to appease public anger were null before the ink dried.
Despite the horrible massacres committed by the Syrian regime, it is clear that the people’s resolve is growing stronger. The revolution continues to expand despite the mass arrests and protests have become a daily event, day and night. All of this speaks of the people’s intransigence with regards to engaging in dialogue with the regime and their insistence on toppling it. It has become customary to give an expressive name to every Friday, and Friday 16th September was called “Moving on until the regime is toppled”. The increasing intensity of the crowd’s slogans has led to frequent calls for the execution of the president and last week scores of Syrian students boycotted the first day of school spending their day chanting an Arabic rhyme: “No studying and no teaching, until the leader falls.” Activists say that the wall of fear has finally fallen; it can only be a matter of time before the House of Assad falls too.
*Ahmad Al Najjar is an activist and writer of Syrian origin. Currently working on a number of research papers related to Arab spring across the Middle East and North Africa.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.