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Syrian Regime's Unsteady Hand

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
July 6, 2011

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Syrian security forces have raided the city of Hama (WSJ), reportedly killing more than a dozen people and wounding dozens more. But while the government continued its call for an invitee-only national dialogue this weekend, the widely publicized crackdown in Hama is making it increasingly difficult for Bashar al-Assad's government to downplay dissent and assert its authority. Some analysts see the government as vulnerable. Pressure on Damascus could be heightened by Amnesty International's request for the UN Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (PDF) for a security raid in May, which it says led to deaths in custody, torture, and arbitrary detention.

Hama, the site of a massacre by Assad's father's government three decades ago, has become the symbolic center of protest movement (NYT) that began in isolated pockets but has now spread through the country. While Hama is a test for the Assad government, it also is one for an international community concerned about the impact of Syria's instability on the volatile Middle East. Syrian refugees have fled into other countries, particularly Turkey (AFP), creating humanitarian and other problems that could further inflame the region. There are also fears Syria could descend into a sectarian conflict that would draw in neighboring states. More than 1,360 civilians and 340 soldiers and police have been killed during the government's crackdown (SyriaToday) since mid-March, according to human rights groups.

Yet Western allies are loath to go beyond sanctions and sharp words, particularly as NATO forces enter their fourth month of engagement in Libya. Despite calls for a UN Security Council move against Syria (TurkishWeekly), Russian and Chinese opposition to a UN condemnation of Assad's government make that step unlikely. And The Arab world generally has been silent about the crackdown in Syria (GlobalArabNetwork), with departing Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa saying little about the regime's harshness.

Assad seems determined to tough out the protest movement with the sticks and carrots of brutality and conciliatory gestures. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said yesterday that Syrians can continue demonstrations calling for the fall of the regime, which he does not believe will, or they can arrive at a more historic opportunity (NPR) to discuss the issues. Moallem also told CNN that there has been no crackdown in Hama. The national dialogue scheduled for July 10-11 in Damascus is to consider constitutional amendments, as well as "the new political parties, elections, local administration, and media bills," according to the government website. The meeting has been rejected by the opposition (LAT) as an excuse to "circumvent the legitimate demands of the people."

Experts are debating what might cause the Assad regime to crumble. Assad is "digging his own grave" and his government could crumble from within, Peter Harling and Robert Malley argue in the Washington Post, because the government has abandoned its provincial roots and "mimicked the ways of the urban upper class." They believe the largely Republican Guard and secret police will ultimately break with a government that is asking them to treat fellow Syrians as "foreign enemies." Others, like the Washington Institute's Andrew Tabler, think security forces will remain loyal to Assad, and that change could come from the majority Sunni population, taking over from the Alawites. NPR's Deborah Amos, one of the few journalists reporting from Syria, believes that despite the government's efforts to muzzle the media (AtlanticWire), images of its brutality will leak onto the Internet and undermine the regime.

Selected Analysis

Assad's regime is tottering, but after a short-term surge in violence, a better one would emerge, says the Economist.

 "If you can't manipulate the decision-making of an authoritarian government during peacetime, imagine how difficult or almost impossible that task would be during times of existential crisis when that government is fighting a brutal war against its own people for survival," writes Bilal Y. Saab in the National Interest.

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