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    Middle East
     Mar 3, 2012

Syrian horrors set to plunge new depths
By Victor Kotsev

There is every indication that the cynicism with which both the regime and most of the foreign-backed rebels disregard the suffering of the Syrian people is a cover for their own moral degradation and desperation. Unfortunately, it is still impossible to either verify or dismiss reports of a large-scale massacre in the Syrian city of Homs, where the government forces conducted a crushing offensive, pushing the Free Syrian Army out of the Bab Amro neighborhood Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, as the great powers continue to wrangle about possible ways to reduce the violence, there are rumors of new diplomatic initiatives being in the works. (On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously demanded "immediate and unhindered access," though the statement released carries much less legal weight than a resolution would.) It is important to watch both the Friends of Syria group (whom the Syrian government has dubbed Enemies of Syria) and Russia, which may conceivably


change its tune after the upcoming presidential elections Sunday.
The latest United Nations casualty figures claim that at least 7,500 people have died since the start of the protests a year ago; this includes, in all likelihood, hundreds if not thousands in Homs. So far, however, phrases such as "war crimes" have been used only very cautiously by Western leaders, and strictly for propaganda purposes. Part of the reason is that if President Bashar al-Assad is officially indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, he will be more likely to fight to the end (like Libya's Gaddafi did); should he come on top, moreover, the West would find it extremely embarrassing to maintain relations with him. It would basically have shot itself in the foot.

Yet there is an even more fundamental reason for this relative silence: so far there has been no conclusive evidence of a systematic massacre. Despite progress in modern technology, which in theory should have reduced greatly the time that the world can be kept in the dark about such events, we find ourselves much in the same place as three decades ago, in early 1982, when rumors of a massacre in the Syrian city of Hama made the rounds but nothing could be confirmed for months [1] (later estimates of the number of killed still vary greatly, usually ranging between 10,000 and 40,000).

Eerily, it was the current Syrian president's father, Hafez al-Assad, who ordered the slaughter in 1982, and his father's brother, Rifaat, who oversaw it. Reportedly, the president's own brother, Maher al-Assad, was the commander of the troops who entered Bab Amro on Thursday.

Yet there are considerable differences between today and 1982. The regime, for one, has changed, and has distanced itself from its official Ba'athist ideology and political program. Consider the following account of that shift, offered two years ago by a Syrian who spent many years in prison at the hands of the regime, and retold for an English-speaking audience, ironically, by an Israeli history professor:
Whoever listens carefully to the regime's spokespeople, says Saleh, notices the change, too: Syrian state nationalism is now openly preferable to pan-Arabism, which is just declarative. Instead of praising the socialist command economy, privatization is hailed. Moreover, the Syrian army once had political commissars whose job was to provide "moral guidance," but not any more. Indoctrination has gone bankrupt not only in the army but in the entire system of education. [2]
The rebels are considerably different from those in 1982, as well, although some basic similarities apply: for example, some of the identity fault lines in the country, such as Sunnis facing off against Alawites, seem to have remained. The confusion on the ground and the lack of unity among the opposition also ring familiar, and one can expect the same kinds of recriminations that followed the rebellion 30 years ago to surface again at some point (to this day, for example, many Syrians accuse the Muslim Brotherhood, which took the lead back in the day, of betraying them).

The Syrian opposition has been anything but united, with further splits happening at a crucial moment in the last days. "The international community has made it clear that the opposition must fully unite before it can receive the support it needs to overthrow the al Assad regime," the influential US-based global intelligence company Stratfor wrote several days ago. "However, as the recent creation of the SPG [Syrian Patriotic Group] shows, the Syrian opposition will likely face continued fracturing, making it increasingly difficult to receive crucial international support." [3]

On Thursday, following the defeat in Homs, more signs of discord showed, and yet another rebel military council was announced. According to the blog of Syria analyst Joshua Landis, this caused "uproar among fighters in Syria and Turkey." [4]

Many Syrians have reportedly lost faith in both sides. A few excerpts from the riveting account of Stephen Starr, a journalist who spent the last five years in the country, illustrate this well:
I asked my local shopkeeper why the authorities are not breaking up the protests.

"Do you watch Tom and Jerry?" he replied. "Here it is the same; they are playing a game." …
"We are not used to this," Damascenes constantly told me. They see Homs and think that nothing is worth the same devastation visiting their own streets and homes. …
Although perhaps inevitable, the militarization of the opposition has been the greatest disaster of the uprising. The regime has exploited this fact by granting visas for dozens of foreign journalists to make the case that the regime is, in fact, fighting armed gangs. …
Bearing witness to a country falling apart is a sobering experience. Cars don't stop at traffic lights or for traffic police. Security officers manning checkpoints slip their hands into cars' glove compartments without asking. But when I speak to Syrians, the most troubling aspect - though few appear to realize it - are the growing divisions between them. [5]
The basic reality on the ground, then, is that opposition is not only outgunned and outnumbered, but also lacks support and is hopelessly fragmented. It is facing a government that has superior force at its disposal, but is isolated both internationally and domestically, its core support base less than a quarter of the population. (This is if we count all Alawites, Christians, and Druze as Assad supporters which is a generous estimate.)

Reportedly, some Sunnis, who are the majority of the population, still support the regime, and this could be a reason why Bashar al-Assad might choose a gentler approach than that of his father. If the civil war which is simmering, however, explodes into true sectarian conflict, it will be a situation fundamentally similar to South African Apartheid, where the government can hold out for a certain amount of time, but is doomed down the road.

The isolation of the regime is underscored by the recent defection of the Palestinian militant organization Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which until last year was allied closely with Assad [6]. The dire straits of the rebels, on the other hand, are demonstrated by their wide outreach, spanning even the Russians and the Israelis. [7]

Any way we look at it, the future of Syria appears bleak. We can only hope that the reports of a massacre in Homs are exaggerated, and that Bashar al-Assad chooses a different path from that of his father.

Regardless, however, the main question is shifting from who will win in the short term to whether anybody can win in the long run.

It is important to pay attention also to the international realities. An argument can be made that at least some of Russia’s posturing at the United Nations (the veto it imposed, together with China, on the Syria resolution last month) was designed for domestic consumption, given the presidential elections on Sunday. Prime minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win, but his extraordinarily graphic macho campaign [8] has faced unexpected resistance. If all goes according to his plan, he will likely be more flexible and open to bargaining soon, and might even be tempted to see the weapons he sold to Syria tested as a salute to his next term at the helm.

It could even be that the Syrian regime mounted its offensive in Homs in anticipation of its changing fortunes at the UN Security Council, where another draft resolution will reportedly be introduced soon.

Ultimately, perhaps, Yemen provided the most hopeful model that could be used in the Syrian crisis. However, there are few idealists in international diplomacy, and being as it is that the Syrian crisis is most likely bundled together with several other issues, including the Iranian nuclear program and the NATO missile defense shield in Europe, the wellbeing of the Syrian people is extremely unlikely to be the top priority of those doing the bargaining.

1. The New Hama Rules, The New York Times, August 2, 2011.
2. A fresh breeze is blowing from Beirut, Ha'aretz, February 24, 2012.
3. More Divisions Among the Syrian Opposition, Stratfor, February 27, 2012.
4. Formation of SNC Military Council Causes Uproar among Fighters in Syria and Turkey, Syria Comment, March 1, 2012.
5. Five Years in Damascus, Foreign Policy, February 29, 2012.
6. Hamas ditches Assad, backs Syria revolt, Ha'aretz/Reuters, February 25, 2012
7. MK Herzog: Syrian rebels want peace with Israel, Ynet, March 1, 2012
8. See Putin advert targets Russia's 'virgin' voters, The Guardian, February 29, 2012

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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