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Monday, August 1, 2011

Assad has few alternatives but violence and more violence

A makeshift gallows with a poster shows the pictures of former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad (top-C), his sons current President Bashar Al Assad (2nd L and bottom C) during an anti-regime protest outside the Syrian embassy in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on July 31, 2011. (GETTY Photo)

A makeshift gallows with a poster shows the pictures of former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad (top-C), his sons current President Bashar Al Assad (2nd L and bottom C) during an anti-regime protest outside the Syrian embassy in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on July 31, 2011. (GETTY Photo)
A member of the Assad family has for the second time in three decades turned the Syrian city of Hama into a symbol of resistance against the Assad’s iron fist rule.

The difference is that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s father, Hafez Al Assad, succeeded 29 years ago in making Hama an example and quelling the unrest.

Bashar’s attempt is more likely to backfire and achieve exactly the opposite.

With the holy month of Ramadan hours away, Mr. Assad’s assault on Hama on Sunday in which nearly 136 people were killed, one of the highest death tolls in one day since the anti-government protests erupted four months ago, promises to increase the rhythm of the protests demanding his departure rather than put an end to them.

If the protests peaked until now on Fridays after prayers, Ramadan is likely to turn every day of the week into a Friday. If the protesters can maintain that pace and keep their remarkable and perseverance, they are likely to significantly increase pressure on Mr. Assad’s troops who will barely have breathing time between confrontations.

The entry into Hama of tanks, which have been stationed on the edge of the city for the past month, was only one indication of Mr. Assad’s escalation of his crackdown on the protesters in what seems to be a desperate attempt to force his opponents into submission.

So was the fact that in a departure from the tactic of attacking one city or town at a time that Hama was on Sunday only one of several cities targeted by the military. Syrian troops also assaulted the eastern towns of Deir ez-Zour and Al-Boukamal, Mouathamiya near the capital Damascus, and the village of al-Harak in the southern province of Dara’a, where the uprising originally erupted in mid-March.

The death toll in Hama is nowhere close to the at least 10,000 casualties in the assault ordered by Mr. Assad’s father in 1982, but the dead of three decades ago lend special significance to the repetition of history in Syria’s third largest city.

The scale and brutality of Sunday’s attacks suggests that Mr. Assad is up a creek and desperately looking for a way out. Four months of continued protests in the face of the regime’s brutality has rendered his crackdown a failure. Increased violence is unlikely to achieve what brutality has so far failed to produce.

The problem Mr. Assad faces is that there is no longer an immediate alternative that would allow him to save face and ensure that he can hold on to some degree of power.

To be sure, the simplistic answer is that he should halt the crackdown and demonstrate that he is serious about political and economic reform. That is easier said than done. It’s too late for that. It would effectively be handing the protesters victory on a silver platter and inevitably lead to Mr. Assad’s demise.

As a result, Mr. Assad and those counseling him appear to believe that offense is his best defense. Yet, that is a strategy that only digs Mr. Assad’s into a deeper hole.

Mr. Assad may well believe his own propaganda. But he is must also ask himself why, if his troops are confronting armed gangs rather than peaceful, unarmed protesters his troops are suffering relatively few casualties and why it is taking so long to crush this foreign-instigated insurgency.

It simply doesn’t add up and it is hard to believe that Mr. Assad does not realize this as he reviews his options.

Ironically, Mr. Assad’s assertions that he is confronting armed gangs could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy and in fact one that could work in his favor.

Mr. Assad and his detractors are engaged in a war of attrition in which each party hopes to wear down the other.

The opposition to Mr. Assad’s regime is however fraying at the edges. Some activists have begun to argue that the peaceful strategy has served its purpose: it has demonstrated the resolve of a significant segment of the population that is willing to risk lives to force Mr. Assad from office, but has failed to do so. The time has come, they suggest, for the opposition to take up arms.

That could prove to be a risky strategy. Certainly, successful hit and run attacks could further demoralize parts of the Syrian military. It would however be at best a long drawn out battle in which Mr. Assad could drop whatever restraints he still may have in an attempt to crush what no longer are peaceful protests and have become a low level insurgency.

Whichever way it goes, Sunday’s attacks on Hama and other towns could prove to be a watershed. Possibly one that sparks a crack that ultimately breaks the camel’s back but more likely one that steps up the violence and significantly increases the bloodshed. From Mr. Assad’s perspective, it may well seems that there is no alternative.

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