February 12, 2012


The long road to Damascus: There are signs that the Syrian regime may become still more violent (The Economist, Feb 11th 2012)

More recently, the state-owned press has spoken ominously of the need to shift away from what it terms "restraint". A new security plan does indeed seem to have been launched on February 3rd, a day seared in Syrian memories as the anniversary of a merciless 1982 artillery assault on the then-rebellious city of Hama, during the rule of Mr Assad's father, Hafez, that left the ancient town's picturesque old quarter in ruins and some 20,000 dead.

Since that date, Bashar Assad's troops have mounted an unprecedentedly brutal show of force. They have showered artillery and rocket fire on Baba Amr and Khaldiyeh, two rebel-held districts of Homs, Syria's third-largest city and the hub of the current uprising. They have also attacked the nearby town of Rastan, the mountain resort of Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, the city of Idlib, close to Turkey, and other towns. Attacks have taken place simultaneously and relentlessly. Opposition sources say they think the shelling is a prelude to ground assaults on all these areas.

With up to several hundred projectiles raining into Homs every hour, the nationwide casualty toll has surged from around 20 a day to more than 50. Transport and telephone links, along with power, water and fuel supplies have been severed to many of the stricken areas, which were poor to begin with and have seen their incomes shrivel during the long months of unrest. With thousands of civilians choosing to abandon their homes despite cold winter weather, Syria is likely soon to confront a grave internal refugee crisis within its sealed borders. "We ask for nothing from the world, except for coffins, since there are not enough of them here for our bodies," declares a sarcastic tweet from Homs.

Mr Assad's government seems to believe that such tactics will succeed in stanching the revolt. A Syrian businessman recounts that in a chance meeting with a senior security official at a posh gym he was told confidently that the current offensive would be decisive. It would in effect "decapitate" the Free Syrian Army, the official boasted.

There are nearby precedents for such success. Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator, ruled for more than a decade following his brutal suppression of an uprising in the country's south after the first Gulf war. Turkey's army has put a fairly tight lid on Kurdish separatism, just as Israel has crushed two Palestinian intifadas. And Mr Assad's own father outlived the rebels in Hama.

There are other reasons why Mr Assad might feel he will prevail. The centre of Damascus does, on the surface, appear surprisingly normal. Shops and caf├ęs are open, if largely empty. Traffic is busy at times. Syria's president felt secure enough recently to venture out to a restaurant.

Despite the rotting of state institutions under one-party rule, Mr Assad's army and security forces have, to general surprise, so far suffered relatively few defections. Conscripts typically serve far from their hometowns, and the army is believed to have culled potentially disloyal soldiers from active units. Nor has Syria's army yet unleashed its full array of firepower, which could include helicopter gunships and jet bombers. Despite making inroads, the rebels, who have briefly controlled areas close to Damascus, have as yet neither the supply lines, nor the communications capacity and heavy weaponry, to mount more than localised pinprick raids.

Perhaps more importantly, Mr Assad still enjoys at least tacit backing from a fair proportion of Syrians. The very brutality of his crackdown has, ironically but perhaps deliberately, bolstered loyalty among minorities that together make up a third of Syria's 23m people. The Assad clan, which has ruled since 1970, are Alawites, an esoteric branch of Shiism that dominates Syria's coastal mountains as well as the armed forces. Poor Alawites also make up much of the rank and file of more shadowy government militias, such as the plainclothes thugs known as the shabiha. Vicious government tactics have served to implicate the Alawites as a whole, raising fears of retribution should the regime fall.
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Posted by at February 12, 2012 9:12 AM

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