The U.S. stance towards Syria is getting tougher after the Assad regime killed at least 164 people in the past three days and staged attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is warning Assad that he is “not indispensable” and has just met with opposition activists in the U.S. The Obama administration’s illusion that Assad can be dealt is fading away.
The Assad regime has begun its bloodiest crackdown yet, using tanks and massive military force to kill at least 164 people over the past three days, mostly in Hama. There were also significant casualties in Latakia, Hasaka and Muadhamiya, a suburb of Damascus. The overall death toll is closing in on 2,000, with 3,000 missing and at least 12,000 arrested. The authorities arrested secular democratic activist Riad Seif to prevent him from traveling to Germany for cancer treatment. The regime is trying to crush the uprising to prevent daily Ramadan prayers from becoming rallying points for protests.
President Obama condemned the “outrageous” atrocities, and Secretary of State Clinton is calling on the U.N. Security Council to condemn the regime. The U.S. embassy accused the regime of waging “full armed warfare on their own citizens.” Russia says it will not oppose a resolution, as long as it doesn’t include sanctions. Italy has recalled its ambassador, and the European Union has placed sanctions on five more senior Syrian officials. Clinton and Robert Ford, the ambassador to Syria, just met with opposition activists living in the U.S. One of the activists, Radwan Zaideh, urged the Obama administration to call on President Bashar Assad to give up power.
Senators Kirk, Gillibrand and Lieberman have introduced bi-partisan legislation to answer the pleas of the Syrian opposition. The bill paves the way for sanctions to be placed on foreign companies investing in Syria’s oil and gas industries, which provides the regime with about one-third of its income from exports. Senators McCain and Graham also demanded that the administration “mobilize the full diplomatic and economic weight of the community of nations to support the Syrian people in establishing the real transition to democracy that they seek in their country.”
U.S. policy towards Syria is not officially one of regime change, though President Obama called on Assad to oversee a democratic transition or “get out of the way.” The Obama administration inched closer to calling for his resignation after the regime instigated mob attacks on the American and French embassies in Damascus. The U.S. and French ambassadors visited the protesters in Hama last month, where they were greeted with flowers and olive branches. The regime reacted angrily, and pro-regime thugs attacked the embassies. French security officers fired live rounds to protect their facility.
Secretary Clinton responded to the attacks by saying Assad had “lost legitimacy,” a slight but significant change in rhetoric from when she said he was “losing legitimacy.” She further declared that he “is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power,” remarks meant to rebuff suggestions that the West has an interest in preserving the anti-American, terrorist-sponsoring regime. However, the aggressiveness of Clinton’s tone was then scaled back.
The Obama administration may fear that the opposition is the losing side, and supporting regime change will demolish any chance of “engagement” should Assad prevail. It is true that a significant split in the military has not yet happened, but the protests continue to spread across the country. Reports of defections sharply increased over the past week. In al-Boukamal in eastern Syria, dozens of soldiers switched sides. One video showed protesters chanting, “The people and the army, one hand!” while standing on two tanks and an armored personnel carrier. A crackdown is now underway.
There was an unconfirmed report that 5,000 soldiers from the 7th Armored Regiment defected in Deir al-Zour, and other soldiers joined the people in Homs. Al-Jazeera did not give a number, but confirmed that “many” troops switched sides in Deir el-Zour. Last Friday, at least three soldiers who tried to defect were killed and 13 wounded. Citizens in Deir el-Zour’s Qisour district took up arms against the security forces. In Homs, a brigadier-general and his men switched sides and fled to the Homs Military Academy. Two weeks ago, at least 30 soldiers defected in Abu Kamal. An army colonel calling himself “Colonel Riad al-Asaad” declared that he was leading hundreds of soldiers in the “Free Syria Army” and would come to Deir el-Zour’s defense against the regime. He said he is in Syria, near the border with Turkey. The validity of his claim has not been verified.
The revolution in Syria refuses to die, no matter how much inhumanity is brought against it. The protesters know that their lives will be in jeopardy should they lose. There is no middle ground. Only one side can win, and victory for either will only come with immense bloodshed.