Syria's Killing Fields

The uprising may have reached a turning point.

President Bashar Assad's bloody crackdown on protesters who are now openly seeking regime change took an ominous turn over the weekend. In the city of Hama, an armored attack on thousands of protesters killed at least 150 civilians on Sunday. There were also reports of attacks by the army in at least four other cities with dozens more killed. The severity of this latest confrontation has been attributed to the onset of the holy month of Ramadan, during which time protests are expected to greatly intensify. Some observers are questioning whether anti-regime protesters will actually be able to deal a serious blow to the Assad government during this volatile month -- or whether the regime's brutality will be too much to withstand.

The escalation appears to be part of an emerging strategy by Assad to increase the brutality in hot spots across the country in an attempt to intimidate and cow regime opponents. The government is particularly concerned that the month of August will see massive protests daily, as worshipers attend prayers at their local mosques and, as has been the custom, pour into the streets afterward. The prospect of huge demonstrations breaking out all over the country at once has the government worried about the stability of the regime and the loyalty of the conscript army.

Those demonstrations will be carefully documented by a small, courageous group of amateurs whose dramatic footage posted to YouTube and other media sharing sites are the only real evidence we have of the barbarity of Assad's crackdown. Without the images they record at risk to life and limb, it is doubtful the extent of the regime's bloodletting would be known.

Those videos have had a huge impact. Worldwide reaction to the massacres has been one of shock and anger. President Obama called the attack in Hama "horrifying" and "appalling," and vowed the US would increase pressure on the Assad regime. The European Union also strongly condemned the attacks and had already agreed to increase sanctions against the regime. Both Italy and Germany called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss Assad's escalation of violence.

In Hama, site of the 1982 massacre of at least 10,000 civilians by Assad's father, Hafez, eyewitnesses reported tanks rumbling into the city at dawn, firing shells into crowds of protesters while heavy machine gun fire could be heard all over the city. It was also reported that rooftop snipers fired wantonly at fleeing civilians.

The death toll in Hama is impossible to confirm, and is likely much higher than the 150 reported dead. One doctor told Reuters, as machine gun fire could clearly be heard in the background, "Tanks are attacking from four directions. They are firing their heavy machine guns randomly and overrunning makeshift road blocks erected by the inhabitants." The doctor also noted that the blood bank is nearly dry and that medicines are in short supply. The UK Telegraph reported that "bodies littered the streets" of Hama.

The death toll in the Euphrates River provincial capital of Dair Alzour, where the people have been in open revolt for weeks, was at least 19. Reports from the town say that the military opened fire with several truck-mounted machine guns directly into a crowd of protesters chanting anti-government slogans while snipers gunned down others. One resident reported by phone that there were snipers on buildings in the center of the city. "They are on the rooftops of government buildings. People started chanting for the army's support but they opened fire in a merciless manner," he said.

There were also reports of crackdowns in the southern city of Dara, some of the same neighborhoods in Homs that have seen clashes between Sunnis and Alawites previously, and Idleb in the country's northwest, as well as the suburbs of Damascus.

The bloodletting was coldly deliberative -- planned and coordinated for maximum psychological effect on the eve of Ramadan. The dawn to dusk fasting by the faithful is followed by prayers after the fast is broken. Activists hope that Ramadan will be a tipping point, that the daily visits to the local mosque will energize millions, and they are encouraging clerics to urge their followers into the streets. The protesters are even hoping to galvanize support in Damascus with a sit-in planned for Monday in conjunction with the start of Ramadan. Few large protests have been held in the capital due to the stifling presence of security forces.

Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based human rights activist from the Damascus suburb of Daraya, told the Wall Street Journal, "The government won't be able to control all the demonstrations if people come out every night after extra prayers as we expect." That may be so, but one Western diplomat was quoted in the Journal as saying that Ramadan was "overhyped" as a turning point. "There will be more people out. The regime is weakened but is still able to fight," he said.

That is what President Assad appears to be preparing to do. According to Michael Weiss of The Telegraph, Assad can no longer trust the bulk of his Sunni conscript troops so he is consolidating his loyalist Alawite units in the army and the feared shabbiha Alawite irregulars into what can only be termed death squads. The black clad shabbiha was seen following the Syrian troops engaged in the crackdowns. Not only are they gunning down civilians, but other reports say they are shooting soldiers who refuse to obey orders to fire into the crowd.

Not surprisingly, this has led to defections in the army. One unconfirmed report has a Syrian officer defecting along with hundreds of his soldiers, vowing to "send my troops to fight against the [regular] army if they do not stop the operations in Deir Ezzor.” There are several videos posted on the Internet showing smiling Syrian soldiers surrounded by applauding civilians. No one knows the extent of the defections, but most analysts put the number at several hundred.

This kind of documentation -- compiled by protesters using camera phones and ordinary recording devices -- is the only confirmation we have of the severity of the crackdown. Some of the videos are hard to watch. Some videographers have paid with their lives in trying to document the brutality of the Assad regime, as snipers deliberately search the crowd and try to assassinate anyone with a camera.

One video from Hama shows a pall of black smoke hanging over the city, while another documents a tank attack on unarmed civilians. The local coordinating committees have networks of bloggers, social media activists, and ordinary volunteers who have uploaded literally hundreds of videos to YouTube and other media sharing sites. Assad may have kicked out foreign reporters, but the story is being told in a much more dramatic fashion than if the BBC or even Al-Jazeera were documenting events. The video -- raw, unedited, unprofessional as it is, nevertheless has had an immediate impact on the world community. And despite Assad's best efforts, he can't close off the country entirely. Word filters through about the support protesters are getting, and they know they are not alone in fighting the regime.

How close is Assad to losing his grip? Michael Weiss thinks that the Syrian president is beginning a final, bloody chapter to his rule, seeking to bring about a convulsive Götterdämmerung:

Just as Saddam Hussein burned oil fields as his troops retreated from the coalition invasion – one last gasp of nihilistic fury – so too does his fellow Ba’athist look to destroy anything he can before his downfall. In this case, it’s an entire country.

This may be so. It is also possible that the coming month will see such a massive outpouring of anti-regime sentiment that the rest of the nation will turn on the small Alawite clique that has been running the country for 40 years and that the government -- already wobbly -- will collapse as a result of internal strife.

Perhaps most worrying is what Weiss was wondering when he asked a Middle East expert whether the kind of massacre that occurred in Hama in 1982 could happen in an age of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. The chilling reply: “Why do you think having an atrocity filmed in broad daylight and exhibited to the world would stop a dictator like Assad from committing one?”

It hasn't stopped him so far. It appears doubtful that anything will.