Turning Point in Syria

The Iranian ally placates protesters with reforms -- but prepares to perpetrate a massacre.

The Syrian regime is in deep trouble. The Friday protests against the regime are much larger with each passing week, forcing President Assad to seek help from Iran to crush the uprising. The use of violence has only enlarged the crowds, and now, according to the Reform Party of Syria, the Syrian army has surrounded the third largest city of Homs and has told its Sufi sheikhs that it faces destruction if the protests there do not end.

At least 17 protesters were killed in Homs on Sunday alone, provoking thousands of demonstrators to chant in support of regime change. “From alleyway to alleyway, from house to house, we want to overthrow you, Bashar,” marchers were heard saying. Residents also destroyed a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the ruling president's late father and predecessor. On Tuesday, video hit the Internet of heavy fire in Homs, and a three-day strike has begun in which all shops and businesses have closed. The regime is now blocking roads to the main square with fire trucks, snipers are seen on roofs, and the city is being described as looking like “a war zone.”

Homs is now surrounded, and the Fourth Armored Division, led by Maher Assad, Bashar’s brother, appears ready to enter the suburb of Talbisseh at any moment. At least four tanks have been seen nearby. An eyewitness told Al-Jazeera that the security forces have beards, indicating they may belong to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah. This is very possible, as the IRGC base that is now overseeing the crackdown is nearby.

The city of Banias has also been surrounded, and the Syrian regime is justifying action against these two cities. “[The events] are an armed insurrection by armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations, especially in the cities of Homs and Banias,” a statement from the Syrian government said. The regime is laying the groundwork for massive bloodshed by labeling the protesters as Islamist terrorists.

Another objective of these measures is to send a message to the West and the population that Islamists would benefit from any weakening of the regime. The regime has closed its first casino, ended the ban on teachers wearing face veils, and a close friend of Assad named Ayman Abdel Nour has been tasked with creating a “moderate Islamist party loyal to the regime” and setting up an Islamist satellite station. This also serves to undermine secular opposition by emphasizing the threat of an Islamist takeover.

The regime has also “lifted” the state of emergency as the vast majority of Syrians wanted. However, the killings continue unabated, and on the same day, legislation was passed to “regulate the right of peaceful protest” that will require prior approval from the Interior Ministry for demonstrations. A State Department spokesman said, “This new legislation may prove as restrictive as the emergency law it replaced.” More accurately, this new law sets the stage for more bloodshed.

The massive protests on Friday that continue today present a monumental challenge for Assad. Leading up to the protests, hundreds were arrested. In Banias alone, 200 were arrested. On that day, 37 were killed at the very least, with 27 deaths in Daraa, 4 in Banias, 3 in Homs, 3 in Harasta, and 1 in Douma. Tens of thousands protested in the capital of Damascus and were violently attacked to prevent marchers from uniting in Abbasside Square. Posters of Assad were ripped and trampled, and in the area of Jawber, protesters caused a bus of security personnel to retreat. On Sunday, 17 were killed in Homs and five were killed in Latakia. Videos surface on a daily basis showing the beatings and killings performed by the security services, including the shooting of a medic and the head wound of a child from the bullet of a sniper.

These protests are encouraging, but unfortunately, there have been no significant defections of soldiers or government officials, as seen in the other countries where uprisings have taken place. This is discouraging, but there are many cases of soldiers and police refusing to obey orders to kill their fellow citizens. The interior minister fired a group of police officers, including the commander of Latakia Province earlier this month. Nine soldiers were executed in Banias and the regime put forward three “citizens” responsible for killing them. They had no signs of torture, and one was identified as a high-level security official. It was obviously a staged event meant to hide the news about the loyalties of the military. The Reform Party of Syria has also reported on a possible assassination campaign against high-level army officers whose loyalty is in question.

On April 14, at least one soldier was killed at Ras al-Naba’a, where the regime’s Allawite Shabbeha militia has taken hold. In Inkhil near Daraa, the chief of police and 17 other police officers have been fired for disobeying orders. A powerful video has been released of soldiers leading demonstrators in Daraa and firing their guns in the air. In Latakia, the bruised corpse of a soldier was brought to his family. The regime claims he was accidentally electrocuted to death. It is because of incidents like these that the Syrian army and security services now report to an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base in Homs Province.

The White House has condemned the violence in Syria, and to its credit, the State Department has confirmed reports that Iran is providing covert assistance to the Assad regime. The Iranians are giving riot gear, advice and help with monitoring the electronic communications of the opposition. Michael Ledeen reports that 350 to 400 cameras have been installed in traffic lights. However, the Syrian opposition is still disappointed with the Obama administration, whose Secretary of State recently called Bashar Assad a “reformer” and has not withdrawn its ambassador.

“The White House has to date rejected our requests for stronger action on Syria,” an unofficial spokesman for the opposition named Ammar Abdulhamid told the Washington Times. Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, has also complained of the “lukewarm” response from the White House. They are asking for a U.N. resolution with the sole purpose of condemning the Syrian government, a strong public statement by President Obama, and sanctions on regime officials behind the violence. The National Security Council staff has had at least two meetings with representatives of the Syrian opposition, but this has yet to result in substantive action.

Bashar Assad has the blood of countless U.S. soldiers, Iraqis, Israelis and Syrians on his hands. He is a major sponsor of terrorism with WMD programs and is Iran’s best ally. The Syrian opposition is asking for small, cost-free measures to protect at least innocent Syrians from being arrested, killed and wounded, not military action. If the U.S. is unwilling to take the softest of measures against one of its major enemies, then it is no wonder why it is looked upon as a power that extremists shouldn’t fear.