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    Middle East
     May 5, 2011

Syrian butchery casts dark shadow
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - News of Osama Bin Laden's assassination, still shrouded in some mystery, has temporarily eclipsed all the other big stories in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the region's turmoil is not going anywhere, and there are very strong reasons beyond the numerous conspiracy theories that are bound to emerge [1] to draw connections between the al-Qaeda leader's death and the Arab uprisings (see Osama a casualty of the Arab revolt, Asia Times Online, May 2, 2011).

The situation in Syria stands out as a particular headache for the Barack Obama administration and the international community, greater than that presented by other hot spots such as Libya or Yemen. Bin Laden's assassination may not have been specifically engineered as a distraction, but it is most certainly a welcome

opportunity for the embattled policymakers to divert some attention. Last Thursday, P J Crowley, until recently spokesman of the US Department of State, joined the chorus of critics of his former boss.

''As the crackdown in Syria escalates, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi's sins from those of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad,'' Crowley wrote in a blog post. ''Having publicly called for Gaddafi's departure, the administration is hesitating to do the same with Assad. It shouldn't."

By all accounts, the situation in the country is untenable, even though an international intervention is nowhere in sight. Patchy reports coming from different cities reveal a grim picture. The death toll is uncertain, but is estimated at more than 500 people since the start of the protests. Hundreds are missing. Thousands have been arrested and charged with anything from "degrading the prestige of the state" to terrorism. Most foreign journalists have been expelled; some, such as al-Jazeera's Dorothy Parvaz, have disappeared.

In the city of Daraa, where the protests started a month and a half ago and which is widely perceived as the epicenter of the uprising, soldiers are reportedly arresting all males over the age of 14 in door-to-door searches. The city has been locked down by the army for over a week, split into sections and left largely without water and electricity. Residents, however, have not given up the fight, and have resorted to creative tactics of resistance.

"Our houses are close to each other, so even though we can't go outside, we stand by the windows and chant," one resident told The Associated Press by satellite phone. "Our neighbors can hear us and they respond."

Last weekend was particularly bloody. Friday became the second-deadliest day in the unrest so far, with over 65 protesters reportedly killed in different parts of the country. According to a summary in Israeli daily Ha'aretz, ''Large demonstrations were reporte ... in Damascus, the central city of Homs, the coastal cities of Banias and Latakia, the northern cities of Raqqa and Hama, and the northeastern town of Qamishli near the Turkish border.''

On Saturday, government troops stormed Daraa's main Omari mosque, and, an al-Jazeera report has it, shot dead the son of the imam, not being able to find the imam himself. Protest leaders are being targeted with particular force, and many have been arrested. Syrian state television is airing confessions of people admitting to membership of terrorist organizations, presumably extracted under torture. On Sunday, Syria's interior ministry offered amnesty to citizens who were ''misled'' to take part in the demonstrations, on condition that they turned themselves in before May 15.

The opposition rejected renewed promises of reform; Farid Ghadry, a Syrian dissident living in the US, told The Jerusalem Post that the Syrian president was ''a dead man walking". Such bravado seems a bit premature - despite that the regime is gravely distressed, what stands out is its apparent efficiency in making arrests. By contrast, in Egypt (where protests succeeded in ousting the president despite hard-to-believe odds) the government had until the end a very difficult time identifying and arresting the protest leaders.

However, evidence has started to emerge of army units defecting - in Daraa, one report has it, elements of the fifth division, made up mostly of conscripts sympathetic to the protesters, exchanged fire late last week with the hard-line fourth division, commanded by the president's brother Maher Assad. If confirmed, these would count as relatively small-scale defections, but they bode worse to come for the regime if the protests continue. Political defections have also escalated, and more than a hundred Ba'ath party members reportedly resigned over the weekend.

There is a serious, if not yet imminent, danger of a collapse of Syria into chaos. At this point, it is not entirely clear who runs the show, and while this lack of transparency is in part due to the regime's games of good cop and bad cop in an attempt by the president to insulate himself from criticism, at least some of the confusion seems genuine. ''Syria is a coalition between diverse, and often divergent, economic and military interests,'' a report in the British Channel 4 explained.

The Channel 4 report points to three power brokers: the president's brother, Maher, known as ''Syria's all-powerful security man''; brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, in charge of the secret police, and cousin, the alleged corruption czar Rami ''Mr 10 Per Cent'' Makhlouf. The tensions between these men are illustrated by a 1999 incident in which Maher is believed to have shot Assef in the stomach during a moment of uncontrollable rage. Besides, other power brokers presumably exist: for example, more speculative reports have suggested heavy Iranian meddling at the top, spurred by dissatisfaction with Bashar Assad's ''soft'' approach vis-a-vis the demonstrators.

That the Obama administration did not name the Syrian president in its latest round of sanctions against the regime both adds credibility to the reports of divisions inside the ruling circle and attests to the predicament in which the White House finds itself. [2] While the ongoing human rights violations (which Department of State spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday characterized as ''barbaric'') cannot be overlooked, nobody in Washington wants to see Syria fall apart - a very real possibility if Assad is deposed, and a scenario that threatens to destabilize key parts of the Middle East such as Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey.

Robert Kaplan, writing for Foreign Policy, explains:
Pan-Arabism - of which the post-World War II independent state of Syria claimed to constitute the "throbbing-heart" - became a substitute for Syria's very weak national identity. Indeed, Syria's self-styled "steadfast" hatred of Israel was a way for Syrians to escape their own internal contradictions. Those contradictions were born of the parochial interests of regionally based ethnic and sectarian groups: Sunni Arabs in the Damascus-Homs-Hama central corridor; heretical, Shi'ite-trending Alawites in the mountains of the northwest; Druze in the south, with their close tribal links to Jordan; and Kurds, Christian Arabs, Armenians, and Circassians in Aleppo. ...

Between 1947 and 1954, Syria held three national elections that all broke down more or less according to these regional and sectarian lines. After 21 changes of government in 24 years and a failed attempt to unify with Egypt, the Alawite air force officer Hafez al-Assad took power in a 1970 coup. By ruling with utter ruthlessness, he kept the peace in Syria for three decades. ...

Were central authority in Syria to substantially weaken or even break down, the regional impact would be greater than in the case of Iraq. ...

Yes, the Iraq war propelled millions of refugees …, but the impact of Syria becoming a Levantine Yugoslavia might be even greater. That is because of the proximity of Syria's major population zones to Lebanon and Jordan, both of which are unstable already. [3]
The reluctance of the US and the international community to replicate the Libyan scenario in Syria is also due to two other factors: the failure of the intervention in Libya to achieve its objectives and the fact that Assad's forces are much better armed than Gaddafi's, sporting, among other things, a large arsenal of medium-range missiles and chemical warheads.

Moreover, as an alternative to the scenario in which several new ''fiefdoms'' armed with weapons of mass destruction destabilize the Levant, Assad is dangling a peace carrot in front of Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Sunday, news broke out that the Syrian regime had invited a prominent Israeli rabbi ''to visit the country where many of his forefathers are buried, and to pray at their Damascus gravesites.'' [4] According to the same report, ''not only was [the small Jewish community in Syria] doing well, but it backs Assad, and believes that he is the best possible leader for them.''

How to interpret this news is anybody's call, but its timing cannot be overlooked. In the last months, much has been made of the possibility of peace between Syria and Israel. While according to most experts the time for that is currently not ripe, if Assad weathers the crisis a peace treaty with the Jewish State could help him in several ways. It would give him an important achievement to present to his people - the return of the contested Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967. It would also allow him to introduce much needed economic reforms. Syria would be largely free from the economic burden of an uphill arms race, it could expect a generous American aid package, and, last but not least, it would gain access to an important aquifer and to innovative Israeli technologies.

As I reported previously, the unrest has been fueled by an exacerbating water crisis in Syria. [5] It bears noting that the Golan Heights contains major water resources which would most likely be shared by the two countries once peace is established. Moreover, Israel is a world leader in innovative irrigation and sea water desalination technologies, both of which Syria could well use.

All of this, unfortunately, is in the realm of speculation. For now, Assad's regime is teetering on the brink and butchering large numbers of its citizens, spurred on by Iran. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is allegedly promoting the unrest. The international community, led by the United States, is watching helplessly on the sidelines. The future of the region is uncertain at best.

1. After truthers and birthers, deathers?, Foreign Policy, May 2. 2011.
2. White House calls on Syria's Assad to 'change course', Jerusalem Post, April 30, 2011.
3. Syriana, Foreign Policy, April 21, 2011.
4. Syria invites Israeli rabbi to visit Damascus, Jerusalem Post, May 1, 2011.
5. Water crisis floats Syrian unrest, Asia Times Online, March 29, 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, May 3, 2011)


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