[Editor’s note: Citing Amnesty International, this article repeats a claim that Zainab al-Hosni, “an 18 year old girl in Homs had apparently been kidnapped and gang raped by Assad’s thugs and then handed back to her parents as a limbless, headless corpse”. Zainab al-Hosni is in fact still alive. The reader is urged to be skeptical of claims coming out of Syria, even those allegedly “corroborated” by human rights groups like Amnesty International. – 10/7/11]
In March 2011, only a week before the Syrian revolution sparked off, Michael Broning of Foreign Affairs wrote an article about the “Sturdy House that Assad Built”, arguing the robustness of the Syrian military dictatorship and its ability to deter country-wide, public sedition. More than two months later, after seeing the events unfold on Syrian soil, he corrected his article and wrote “Cracks in the House of Assad”. This exhibits the extent to which the brave Syrian people have surprised policy experts, the international community, the regime, and indeed their own countrymen. Many political observers of Syrian origin themselves were dubious about the revolution taking place at all, much less its ability to dismantle this iron-clad despotic regime. Such doubts were not unjustified, taking into consideration the ruthless nature of the regime, its criminal history, and how far it was ready to go to crush any anti-government sentiment.
Now, more than six months after the commencement of Syria’s velvet revolution, there are many indications that the Assad Regime is indeed falling apart.
Both the Syrian protesters and the government realize that their predicament is a one-way street. The people are demanding their much-deserved freedom and human rights, and the police state will continue to do what it does best, rule with an iron fist. In late April, I wrote that the Syrian people recognize that there is no turning back. If that applied then, it is that much truer now. Eventually, the people’s perseverance will prevail. The regime cannot keep terrorizing the people forever, and many activists have alluded to the lethargy of the regime’s military and security forces that are ordered to work round the clock to quell any rebellious activity.
Military defections are slowly but surely increasing countrywide in cities like Homs, Hama, Dar’aa, Idlib, Deir Al-Zour, and even Damascus and its suburbs. This is one of the most critical issues facing the regime, especially as defections have even started in the elite republican guard. It is important to note that the current number of defectors is not an accurate gauge of the military’s morale. This is because the defection trend would rise rapidly if it wasn’t for the genuine fear of reprisal. In addition, there are many personnel who haven’t revealed their defection for tactical reasons or for personal safety. In reality, there is real misery amongst the ranks of the police and military, not least because of their fatigue from facing the public unrest daily. Salaries are either withheld or paid late. There is a general reluctance to carry on in this way. To that end, the newly formed ‘Free Syrian Army’ is attempting to create a liberated zone in ‘Jabal Al-Zawiya’ in the northwest close to the Turkish border, which would serve as a refuge for future military defectors. This may provide the incentive needed to generate mass defections that would deal a powerful blow to the regime.
The Assad military, police, and thugs have responded to the country’s peaceful protestors with repression and atrocious violence. This is merely a continuation of the regime’s long history of gross human rights violations and blatant disregard for human life. The regime is waging what seems like an all out war against unarmed civilians using tanks, fighter jets, heavy artillery, and even warships (as was done in Latakia). This reprehensible display of violence illustrates the regime’s political and moral bankruptcy and shows how weak it really is. The crackdown has so far resulted in more than 2,700 deaths, tens of thousands of prisoners, and an alarming number of people wounded. This death toll is according to conservative UN estimates; the actual number is much higher. A new report released by Avaaz, the humanitarian campaign group, puts the death toll at 5,300, more than double the UN estimate.
Assad’s forces have sunk to a new low as they viciously beat the elderly, women, and even children. Without shame, they have resorted to killing, imprisonment, torture, gang rape, and mutilation. Incidentally, what sparked the revolution was the torture of children from Dar’aa who mindlessly painted popular Arab spring slogans on a wall. It is reported that their fingernails were pulled off. Hamza Al-Khatib, a 13 year old who was tortured to death, has now become one of the symbols of the revolution. For the many parents who are searching for imprisoned children, it is quite common for them to be summoned to receive their sons and daughters in body bags; recently, an 18 year old girl in Homs had apparently been kidnapped and gang raped by Assad’s thugs and then handed back to her parents as a limbless, headless corpse. Her parents were then forced to sign that this was the work of armed gangs. Death in custody has become common as Amnesty International has recorded many such cases. Much of the beatings and torture have been verified by obscene videos recorded by the perpetrators themselves. Just how such videos were leaked may be confusing if we think the regime pays attention to human rights accusations and media accountability; it becomes understandable when we realize the regime wants such videos to spread to instill fear in the hearts of the people. As despicable as it may be, such terrifying and sadistic videos are being sold for profit.
Syria has been subjected to merciless rule by the Assad clan for more than four decades. Throughout that period, they promoted sectarian divisions by favoring their own Alawite minority and discriminating against the Sunni Muslim majority and other minorities. Despite that, Syrian society has been able to achieve a considerable degree of coexistence. Now that the regime finds itself backed against the wall, it is insidiously playing the sectarian card and inciting violence through arming the Alawite minority. It is also spreading hateful graffiti on public walls and inside houses of worship, in a desperate attempt to hold on to what seems like a slipping throne. Ironically, the regime then blames its opponents for instigating a sectarian civil war while portraying itself as the safety valve against such an occurrence. It is worth noting that the protest movement has been keen on raising banners that condemn sectarianism and promote unity.
The other card the Assad regime systematically manipulated was the constant demagoguing of the Palestine question. There is an increasing realization that that was merely a smoke-screen that was carefully exploited to justify its presence and its right to tyrannize the people and bury the country under several decades of emergency law. This was quite conspicuous when Assad allowed hundreds of youth to rattle the Golan-Israel border for the first time in forty years on the anniversary of the Palestinian ‘Nakba’. It was a multi-faceted message meant to divert attention from the Syrian conundrum and show Israel that Syria was the best protector of its neighbor’s borders. Thus, it is not surprising that most Israeli media, which always cast Assad as a villain before, now expressed fear that he may be overthrown. Rami Makhlouf, the notorious tycoon and Assad’s maternal cousin, put it best when he said: “Security for Israel stems from security for Syria.” Alas, the Syrian people are finally telling the regime that sincerely supporting occupied Palestine and living with human dignity and freedom are not mutually exclusive.
As the Syrian crisis grows, Bashar Al-Assad may slowly lose what used to be unconditional support from his most valuable ally, Iran. There is evidence that Tehran is taking a closer, more pragmatic look at the situation and possibly planning for a post-Assad Syria. This is corroborated by news of secret talks with the Syrian opposition in Paris recently. Furthermore, official government media in Iran is focusing more on the Syrian protest movement and the subsequent violent crackdown by the government. In addition, some Syrian opposition leaders look positively upon their most recent meeting with Russian government officials, and feel that Russia’s support may also start to wane, albeit slowly. As for Turkey, Syria lost that ally long ago. Ankara has stopped several arms shipments to Syria. The friction reached a climax with the comments of Prime Minister Erdogan in liberated Tripoli: “Do not forget this: those in Syria who inflict repression on the people will not be able to stand on their feet because oppression and prosperity cannot exist together… The time of autocracies is over. Totalitarian regimes are disappearing. The rule of the people is coming.” From a practical point of view, the New York Times last week quoted several western intelligence sources predicating that Assad is on the edge and isn’t coming back.
Adding to Syria’s isolation, international pressure has been mounting and several world powers have called for Assad’s abdication. Arab condemnation has been limited, but is growing. The recent finger-pointing exchange between the New York Times and Iraqi officials about Iraq asking Assad to step down may signal a change in Baghdad’s position. A few days back, the Arab parliamentary body called on suspending Damascus from the Arab League. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition is working hard to form a more homogeneous, united body to serve as an alternative for governing Syria in its transition phase.
There is a real economic crisis developing in Syria due to diminished economic activity and foreign investment, reduced labor and closures, and various international sanctions. The most drastic step yet taken was the recent ‘crude oil & petroleum products’ embargo implemented by the EU, Syria’s largest single trading partner. This was followed by EU prohibition of investments in Syria’s oil sector. The last six months of military crackdown has also severely hurt the shipping industry as sources estimate a 35-40% drop in cargo volumes at Latakia and Tartous, two of Syria’s main port cities. An important shipping agent in Tartous reports a large reduction in vessel exchange from what used to be 25-30 vessels daily to a low of 5-10 only. Furthermore, while the IMF had originally predicted 3% growth in Syrian GDP back in April, its September ‘World Economic Outlook’ modified that to a 2% decline. Now, Turkey is also preparing sanctions against its Arab neighbor.
The repeated miscalculations of the Assad clan show how out of tune they are with the new reality facing them. The most salient example of this is the repeated announcement that the revolution is over and that normalcy is returning, only to discover that the protest movement is unabatedly growing. Other examples include but are not limited to childish actions such as media performances acted out for national television to frame the protestors, false testimony they aired of alleged conspirators after torturing them, and the silly excuses they haven’t stopped citing to justify the brutal crackdown. All they keep mentioning is the presence of armed gangs, terrorists, extreme Islamic elements, and conspiring traitors. Topping all those efforts, the cosmetic reforms introduced are fooling no one.
The Assad regime has exhibited an obvious inability to institute reforms, much less convince the people that the reforms are bona fide. This is because genuine reform requires laws and institutions and is impossible in lieu of military apparatus predominance. Assad and his comrades are the first to realize that real reform will lead to complete downfall of their autocracy. The Syrian people have been hearing empty promises of reform for years. The farcical directives issued under pressure in the last six months to appease public anger were rendered null before the ink dried.
Despite the horrible massacres committed by this fascist regime, it is clear that the Syrian people’s resolve is only growing stronger. The revolution continues to expand in terms of participation and geography, despite the mass arrests carried out. Protests have become a daily event, day and night. All of this speaks to the people’s intransigence with regards to participating in dialogue with the regime and their insistence on toppling it. As it has been the custom to give an expressive name to every Friday, they chose to name the Friday of September 16 “Moving on until the regime is toppled”. One easily observes the rising intensity of slogans chanted during the demonstrations, as calls for even executing the president are now becoming more frequent. Another indication is the purposeful absence of scores of Syrian students from the first day of school in protest last week. Instead they spent their day chanting an Arabic rhyme: “No studying and no teaching, until the leader falls.” It is also common to hear many of the activists saying that the wall of fear has finally fallen.
It is only a matter of time before the house of Assad falls too.