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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hama: a tipping point for Assad?



Mass anti-government protest in Hama
By James M. Dorsey

For the past three decades, Hama symbolized the Syrian regime's ability and willingness to brutally crush its opponents.

Almost 30 years later, Hama appears to be rising from the ashes of its subjugation to symbolize the possible beginning of an albeit slow, chaotic and bloody end of four decades of iron fist rule by the Assad family.

The Syrian military's assault on Hama that started this weekend in a desperate push to squash five-month long mass anti-government protests is backfiring.

The assault has failed to break the resilience and perseverance of protesters whose numbers appear to increase rather than decrease after each wave of escalating regime brutality.

To be sure, when then Syrian president Hafez al Assad ordered his attack on Hama in 1982, the affair was over in days, at least 10,000 people were dead and the center of the city had largely been destroyed.

Mr. Assad's son and successor, Bashar al Assad, has demonstrated that he has his father's mettle. Nonetheless, he has yet to escalate the violence to the level of Hama three decades ago.

Tanks are shelling Hama and have entered the city, but the city center still stands over end. Human rights groups estimate the number of dead at about 2,000 in five months - a fifth of the number in 1982.

Nonetheless, this week's assault has sparked the fragile beginning of an international consensus that the violence has to stop. It has also contributed to a growing acceptance that Mr. Assad may not be part of the solution.

A statement by the president of the United Nations Security Council called for an end to the violence and hinted at the possibility of sanctions. The statement signaled that for the first time in five months China and Russia feel that they no longer can remain silent and give Mr. Assad blanket cover to do what he wants.

To be sure, neither China nor Russia is anywhere close to calling for Mr. Assad's resignation. US and EU officials too concede that Syria's fractured opposition does not have the wherewithal take over a deeply divided and battered country.

However, with the probability that Mr. Assad will heed the UN call virtually negligible, China and Russia will have no choice to acquiesce in increased non-military pressure on the Syrian president.

Hama has also pushed the Obama administration to the edge of calling for the first time for Mr. Assad's downfall and giving up hope that he could be persuaded to embrace political and economic reform.

Hama may have contributed to Mr. Assad losing international ground, but the real question is whether condemnations and statements can be translated into non-military action that strikes where it hurts. US and European sanctions against Mr. Assad and scores of his associates have failed to force the Syrian president to change course.

In a meeting this week with US Secretary of State of Hillary Rodham Clinton, exiled Syrian opposition called for meaningful sanctions such as an oil boycott
Yet, that too is easier said than done. An oil boycott would allow Mr. Assad to blame increased hardship on the West and bolster his assertion that the protests are foreign instigated.

At the same time, an oil boycott is one of the few sanctions that Mr. Assad cannot simply ignore. It would significantly reduce his ability to fund the crackdown and other government operations. The government depends on oil exports for one third of its revenues.

It could also play a significant role in convincing the Syrian business community that so far has continued to back the president or at least straddled the fence that he no longer has a chance of restoring some semblance of stability.

In the final analysis, Hama three decades ago signaled the Assad's ability to maintain their grip on power. Today, the city may well stand for the beginning of the family's demise.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

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