Saturday, August 13, 2011

Assad's moment of truth or dare

The Syrian city of Hama remains defiant despite a week-long assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. On Thursday Syrian forces took Turkish journalists around the city to show them they were back in control. While the government claimed it was ridding Hama of “terrorists”, residents had a different story. They told of told of indiscriminate shelling by the army, snipers aiming at civilians and corpses piling up in the streets. Human rights groups say 1,700 people have died so far in the crackdown with casualties highest in Hama. (photo of Hama July protest:Wikipedia)

It is little surprise Hama should be at the heart of the revolution as it has long been a hotbed of anti-Ba’athist activity. Shortly after the Ba’athists first seized power in Syria in 1963, Islamic groups in Hama rose against the new secular regime. That rebellion was crushed as was another in 1982. Tens of thousands were killed in what became known as the Hama Massacre and parts of the city were flattened. There were echoes of that in July when 136 people were killed in Hama in the “Ramadan Massacre”. Syrian forces attacked demonstrators using tanks, artillery, and snipers.

Hama and Homs were among the earliest city to join this year’s Arab Spring but the two biggest cities Damascus and Aleppo (home to half the country’s population) have been mostly quiet. But that may be about to change. Reports just in from Al Jazeera north east Damascus is the focus of a major government offensive. As one protester puts it, the regime is feeling time is against it after strong Arab and international reaction against the crackdown. The security forces want to end anti-Assad protests within one or two weeks.

Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect which has ties to Shia Islam. Alawites are 12 percent of Syria’s 22 million people but hold a vastly outsized portion of the high-ranking positions in the government and the military. Sunnis consider them heretics. When the French ruled in the early 20th century, they granted the Alawites their own state and they were autonomous Syrian independence in 1946. In the 1930s, the French rejected calls from Sulayman Al Assad against union with Syria. Since then, the Assad family has built its power in the Alawite political movement in Syria. When Hafez Al Assad seized power in an intra-party coup in 1970, most of the Alawite community lined up behind him. Hafez was a hardline ruler and it was he who authorised the 1982 Hama massacre. Bashar al Assad absorbed the lessons well after becoming president in 2000 on his father’s death.

Bashar was an accidental president. When his father died in June 2000, it only took hours for the Syrian parliament to vote to amend the country's constitution to allow al-Assad to become president lowering the age of eligibility of the president from 40 to 34. It had been elder brother Basil who was originally groomed as Hafez’s successor, and was chief of security. Meanwhile Bashar studied medicine in Britain, receiving a degree in ophthalmology, and headed the Syrian Computer Society. But in 1994 Basil was driving his Mercedes to the airport at high speed during a fog. He slammed into a roundabout and died instantly. Bashar was rushed home from London to rejoin the army.

The army remains Bashar’s greatest ally today. Like the president, most of the top brass are Alawite. Assad's brother Maher controls key military units packed with Alawite soldiers. One security expert told Reuters the regime had been careful about placing Alawite loyalists in all key positions. Some Sunni officers have risen to high ranks but have very little power to command troops. It is unlikely the army will switch sides any time soon.

If pressure has to be brought to bear, it must come from outside. The US added to its sanctions on Syria on 10 August to blacklist telco Syriatel and the Commercial Bank of Syria, a Syrian state-owned institution and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank. They add to existing sanctions including freezing assets and bans on business dealings, personal sanctions on Assad, as well as Syria's vice president, prime minister, interior and defence ministers, the head of military intelligence and director of the political security branch. Internally, the protests have reached a point of no return. As the Economist puts it, the savagery of the regime’s response has convinced protesters that the movement has to continue or face revenge of unimaginable proportions.

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