Assad’s crackdown strengthens protesters’ resolve leaving him with no real options

Syrian anti-regime protesters carry national flags and banners during a rally in the southern suburb of Maadamiya, Damascus, Syria.
Syrian anti-regime protesters carry national flags and banners during a rally in the southern suburb of Maadamiya, Damascus, Syria.
The lesson learnt some 50 years ago by German police during the 1960s student revolt has yet to dawn on embattled Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. The problem is it may be too late for that.

At the time, German police realized that every time they hit a protestor over the head with a baton, they produced a new reader of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the student movement’s Bible at the time.
Fifty years later, that lesson is repeating itself in Syria. The harsher the crackdown, the greater the protesters’ resolve and the more people take to the streets. Up to a million protesters are reported to have crowded streets across Syria on Friday in solidarity with Homs, the country’s third largest city where at least 50 people have been killed this week in an intensified government crackdown.

Five months into the mass anti-government protests, continued violence seems a foregone conclusion despite ambiguity in the opposition’s demands. While the protesters are demanding Mr. Assad’s resignation they have not ruled out a dialogue with him provided he halts his brutal crackdown which has already cost at least 2,000 lives, including that of 400 soldiers, and releases the thousands detained since the outbreak of the protests.

That notwithstanding, Mr. Assad appears to have backed himself into a dead end road. Brutal violence is backfiring rather than squashing the protests but remains Mr. Assad’s apparently preferred and perhaps his only option.
Halting the violence and engaging the protesters in a genuine dialogue that produces real political and economic reform would hand his opponents a substantial victory, substantially weaken his position and probably lead to his downfall.

His third option of ending the crackdown and allowing the protests to continue offers Mr. Assad equally little upside. That would significantly lower the barrier that has so far stopped the Alawite and Christian minority as well as the business community, key pillars of Mr. Assad’s support, from joining the protests. Ultimately, it would lead to his downfall.

Opposition organizers fear that Mr. Assad’s dilemma is prompting him to attempt to undermine the protests and change their very nature by instigating sectarian strife. Mr. Assad has from the outset charged that the protesters are armed gangs egged on by dark foreign forces who are dragging the country into a civil war.

The organizers, grouped in The Local Coordinating Committees, warned Syrians in a statement not to fall into the Assad regime’s trap of attempting to “stir up” sectarianism.

“The criminal regime in power in Syria will continue to provoke sectarian discord. It plans assassinations and car bombs in front of schools and other buildings in different regions targeting specific communities. The regime will continue to arm some people in the Alawi community into thinking they are threatened by other communities,” the statement said.

Homs, the hometown of the president’s wife, Asma, has recently been the scene of a series of tit for tat killings that have fuelled tension between the city’s majority Sunni Muslim population and its minority of Alawites, the Shiite sect from which Mr. Assad hails.

Syrian troops and tanks first entered Homs two months ago and have since occupied the main square. This week, they intensified their attacks on the protesters in a clear escalation of the crackdown. Residents report stepped checkpoints as the authorities seek to arrest protest organizers. Hospitals have reportedly appealed for blood donors to help treat the wounded of continuing clashes in the city.

The sectarian violence is fuelling Lebanese, Arab and Western fears that it could spread to Syria’s neighbors. There have already been isolated clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

While Mr. Assad’s regime and the protesters blame each other for the sectarian incidents, the violence seems to serve the government’s purpose rather than that of his opponents. Stepped up sectarian violence would derail the protests and undermine the protesters’ efforts to achieve a degree of cohesion and ultimately form a shadow government.

With few if any immediate options available to him, Mr. Assad increasingly looks like a man who has nothing more to lose. He could nonetheless still prove to be a cat with nine lives but each day that he continues the crackdown raises the price he is likely to have to pay.


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