Last Thursday, President Obama told Syrian President Bashar Assad to “lead that [democratic] transition or get out of the way.” He has answered with continued bloodshed, including firing upon mourners at a funeral on Saturday.
On Friday, the day after Obama’s speech, tens of thousands of Syrians poured into the streets to protest the Assad regime as they have done on a weekly basis since the uprising began. On that day, 44 civilians were killed. On Saturday, about 40,000 people attended a funeral in Homs for one of those who died and the crowd was fired upon. By the end of the weekend, the casualty number rose to 76. The death toll has topped 900 and at least 10,000 have been arrested. Over 1,000 student protesters were detained in Aleppo last week alone.
The regime often searches hospitals for its opponents, so those injured are now forced to seek treatment in private homes and clinics. On May 16, four mass graves were discovered in Daraa with up to 40 bodies, including women and children. Videos showing the inhumanity of the regime are regularly posted on the Internet, including one showing a tank twice running over a wounded or dead protester. The regime is trying to stop the flow of refugees out of the country, as about 10,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon. Crackdowns that include the severing of communications and sometimes electricity continue in several cities including Daraa, Homs, Deir al-Zour and suburbs and towns in Damascus like Saqba and Douma.
The regime has finally admitted that some of its security forces are guilty of using violence, but says this is because they were inadequately trained. It continues to claim that “armed groups” and Islamic extremists are responsible for the murders. On Friday, state television aired the confessions of alleged terrorists who said they were waging jihad on the Assad regime to create an Islamic principality using arms imported from Lebanon. The regime has justified its military crackdowns by saying they are counter-terrorism actions, and has accused its enemies in Lebanon of stoking the unrest.
An Iranian opposition group has reported that 65 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps were sent to Damascus earlier this month in four planes loaded with weapons. According to this account, the Iranians have set up a base in Damascus called the Ammar Operations Headquarters to coordinate efforts with the Syrian regime. The Reform Party of Syria earlier broke the story that a similar base had been set up in Homs to oversee the Syrian security forces and military. The U.S.-based opposition group also says that non-Arabic fighters have been seen in Talkalah, Daraa, Idlib and Jisr al-Shoughour, indicating the intervention of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. It has also been said that Iraqis loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr are involved in Iran’s efforts to save the Assad regime.
The Assad regime is undeterred by growing international pressure. The U.S. and its European allies have sanctioned senior Syrian officials. The Obama administration even sanctioned Assad himself, and President Obama boldly called on him to begin democratic reforms or step down. He also demanded the release of political prisoners, permitting protests and allowing human rights monitors into conflicted areas like Daraa. The State Department says the U.S. policy towards Syria is not about regime change, but the “window is narrowing.”
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has turned on Assad, though he is not yet publicly supporting his removal. The Turkish government says that the regime must enact “comprehensive, shock reforms” or there will not be a peaceful transition. The British Minister of State for Armed Forces says it is “highly likely” that Assad will be indicted by the International Criminal Court, and nearly half of the Kuwaiti parliament wants to sever ties with Syria. The French and Israeli governments are publicly predicting that Assad will be overthrown by his people if he does not stop using violence. The Syrian protesters are expressing their anger towards countries supportive of Assad. One video shows the Russian and Iranian flags being burned in Homs.
The Assad regime still does not have to contend with widespread military and government defections, but there are signs of a split. Last week, three soldiers were wounded after taking the side of protesters fleeing the regime’s Allawite Shabbiha militia. They then tried to escape to Lebanon, with one dying before finishing his trip. The Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese government has put them in custody, and handed them back over to the Assad regime that will likely execute them. One army officer who escaped to Europe estimated that only 20 percent of the Allawite minority, which the Assad regime draws its ranks from, is supportive of the dictatorship. He claimed that 200 Allawite officers have refused to fire on civilians.
The Muslim Brotherhood is now making a bid to lead the Syrian opposition. A spokesman in London said, “We have a desire to coordinate the position of the opposition.” The Islamist group is organizing in Turkey, and is participating in an opposition conference in Cairo. A transitional council is planned to be formed in Turkey by the end of May, but it is unclear how big of a role the Brotherhood will play in it.
The Syrian uprising only gets stronger in the face of violence. The Interior Ministry has authorized a candlelight vigil in Damascus on Monday, May 23. Some opposition forces are organizing a massive sit-in protest to last “until the downfall of the regime.” One refugee said, “The first words my year-old son will learn to say are: ‘We don’t want Bashar.’”
Assad is a murderous thug, and can never be a genuine reformer. The Syrian people know this, and it is time for the international community to recognize it. The fantasy that the Assad regime can be persuaded to change its ways is coming to an end.
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