The Baathist Syrian regime is facing its greatest internal challenge since Hafez al-Assad destroyed Hama in 1982 to put down a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. Bashar Assad’s violence against protesters has ignited further discontent and it shows no sign of dissipating. If the revolution in Syria succeeds, it will remove a state sponsor of terrorism and ally of Iran with the blood of American soldiers on its hands.
Up to 126 civilians have been killed by the Syrian security forces since the uprising began and the death toll continues to climb. The Assad regime had been one of the few that seemed stable in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution as a much-anticipated “Day of Rage” in February failed to materialize. The uprising had small beginnings as lonely voices calling for protests became louder and more numerous.
The turning point came on February 17, when about 1,500 spontaneously demonstrated in Damascus following the beating of a young man by security personnel. The speed with which the crowd grew was alarming to the regime, which quickly dispatched security personnel and government officials to the scene. The Interior Minister arrived and promised an investigation into the incident. On February 22, about 200 people held a sit-in near the Libyan embassy to express their anger with Muammar Qaddafi and 14 were arrested.
In the second week of March, many Kurdish political prisoners began a hunger strike and a dozen Syrian human rights groups called for an end to discriminatory practices against the Kurdish minority. Kurds represent about 10 percent of the population but have been a source of major trouble for the ruling government. President Assad, who had already begun talking of a reform agenda and announced aid packages to try to appease his population, pardoned a human rights activist. The regime appeared strong to outsiders but it was obviously worried.
On March 15, about 200 protested for freedom in Damascus. The next day, about 150 people gathered in front of the Interior Ministry to silently protest for the release of political prisoners, of which there are about 4,000. At least 33 participants were subsequently arrested, but a psychological barrier had been broken and protests were sparked in four cities, most significantly in the southern city of Deraa. Like the rest of the country, the city was unsatisfied with the economic and political conditions, but it was particularly upset over the arrest of 15 children between the ages of 10 and 15 for writing pro-revolution slogans. The regime’s security forces attacked the crowd, killing six people on March 23.
The funerals for the victims in Deraa became a rallying point for tens of thousands of demonstrators, sparking further clashes in the city. A state of Hafez al-Assad has been toppled. It didn’t take long for protests to spread to the surrounding area and elsewhere in the country in the following days. A map created by NOWLebanon shows how the protests have truly morphed into a nationwide uprising, spreading even to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
The situation is spiraling out of country for the Assad regime, which had to deploy the army to Latakia after a dozen died on Saturday, some of which is the result of sniper fire. There were deaths elsewhere in the country, including 20 in Sanamein. Security forces in Deraa have retreated to the outskirts of the city and there are numerous reports of the regime using Farsi-speaking personnel to attack the demonstrators, indicating the possible involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. There are also suspicions that some security forces are from Hezbollah as southern Lebanese accents have been reportedly heard.
About 4,000 people held a sit-in at Douma near Damascus, 200 of which were arrested after electricity was cut off and raids began. University dorms have been raided in Latakia. In Taurus and Deraa, the Baath Party offices have been set on fire. The regime has blamed the violence on “armed gangs” and has claimed that those killing civilians were unidentified actors who stole government uniforms. Denials like these will only enflame the situation.
The Assad regime is coupling its aggressive posture with some concessions. It has released 260 political prisoners, including an activist from Deraa and says it will release the children that were detained. It also says that the state of emergency will be lifted. Concessions such as these have not proven adequate in the other Arab countries where violence caused a popular backlash, and there is no reason to believe Syria is any different. They also come with a catch. All but 14 of the released prisoners are Islamists, so the regime is likely trying to play on fears that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic extremists will replace it. A presidential advisor is already trying to pin the blame on Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi. Counter-terrorism laws are reportedly being prepared to replace the emergency laws to ensure the regime’s grip on the country is not weakened.
There are two key factors to watch out for as the uprising continues. Firstly, the Kurdish minority and the Muslim Brotherhood have yet to hit the streets. Secondly, signs of dissention among the military and security forces must be looked for. The ambassador to India has resigned and there are reports of four soldiers going missing after refusing to open fire in Hassakeh in the northeast.
The Syrian regime’s violence has been widely condemned and Secretary of Defense Gates has rightly said that the army should take the side of the people, stating “…the Egyptian army stood on the sidelines and allowed people to demonstrate and in fact empowered a revolution. The Syrians might take a lesson from that.” However, Secretary of State Clinton condemned the violence but said, “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he is a reformer.”
Bashar Assad is not a “reformer.” He is a dictator that should not be looked upon kindly or as someone the U.S. can win to its side. He is a close ally of Iran and is supporter of terrorism who is responsible for killing American soldiers in Iraq. The uprising in Syria is aimed at unseating an enemy of the West and this opportunity should not be missed as it was in Iran in 2009.