by Rahul Ravi
If there is one thing the Syrian regime under an Assad knows how to do, it is oppress. And oppress they did on Sunday morning in Hama. After allowing the town some autonomy to protest, set up roadblocks, and generally flip the bird to Damascus for the past few weeks, the army steamrolled Hama. According to the New York Times, the army assault continued into Monday.
Is this 1982 all over again? According to many media outlets it is. And under superficial analysis, they’d be spot on: military crushing an anti-government movement in Hama using overwhelming force. However, beneath that layer lay several key differences. First, the 1982 protests were against the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization. There weren’t other protests, like now, around Syria which claimed solidarity. In light of the recent crackdown, the people of Hama are receiving moral support from other restive areas in the country. Whether or not the action taken by Damascus will deter future protests is uncertain, however, as of now it seems only to embolden the unrest.
Second, this is Ramadan. For President Assad to attack a city during the first days of Ramadan signals a complete lack of discretion in an already corrosive government. It seems completely counter-intuitive to take this type of action at a time when the regime has been threatened most. Assad is basically telling the people that he has no use for them. If he had simply let them protest throughout Ramadan, then they either would have tired out or just maintained the status quo: a couple of protests here and there but no major challenge. However, by taking this activist approach to oppression, the regime gives other restive areas reason to take to the streets. The current narrative in the Middle East has given the people the courage and will to stand against these thug tactics. And Assad proved that he is nothing more than just that when he decided to attack during Ramadan.
What does this mean for Syria though? It means that any international support they had will wane in the near future. Their only reliable partner in this is Tehran, whose hypocrisy in supporting the people’s party – Hezbollah – and supporting Assad merely grows as time passes. Russia, usually a stalwart ally, has already indicated that it will consider supporting UN Security Council resolutions against Damascus. Turkey has seemingly given up on Assad as well, insinuating that Ankara is unwilling to provide further diplomatic cover for Assad. President Abdullah Gul even cited attacking people on Ramadan as “unacceptable,” and that “It is not possible for [Turkey] to remain indifferent to this violence.” According to the Wall Street Journal, trust between the two allies is all but gone:
The new attack on Hama “has raised serious, very serious questions about the intentions of the Syrian regime,” the official said. “We are coming to a point where their words no longer mean anything. They have shown they are not interested in a peaceful resolution.”
These are pretty strong words from a country which insisted only three months ago that they believe Assad capable of implementing reforms. It seems as if Damascus has finally rid itself of all goodwill from Turkey. It is also indicative of Turkey’s role in the Arab Spring thus far. It echoes what happened in Libya: try to maintain good relations with the regime until it is popularly untenable to do so. Killing people at the start of Ramadan is a bridge too far for the AKP and Ankara.
So what does the United States do? The US doesn’t have much direct leverage on Damascus, but Assad insists on making international condemnation of his regime easier and easier each week. Washington has already sanctioned specific businesses and individuals associated with the regime but have yet to pass anything in the Security Council. With Moscow now on the fence about continuing its support for Damascus, China might follow suit or simply abstain.
However, further isolation only seems to give Assad more of a free hand to kill his own people. If he’s already a pariah, then why care what the world thinks? And since Turkey’s trade seems to be unabated by the current unrest, the possibility that Ankara will place sanctions on Syria are low. All it would do is decrease its leverage in Damascus and increase Iran’s. Perhaps playing the waiting game and gathering international support for Security Council action against Syria is the only real course of action. Military strikes won’t happen anytime soon, and the only country with economic leverage, Turkey, will probably be unwilling to sacrifice its trade to oust Assad.
But waiting might not be such a bad thing. Damascus, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, is sowing the seeds of destruction of its own regime. Its most recent Ramadan attacks have seemingly solidified the anti-government sentiment of the people and have lost it the support of external benefactors, whose goodwill it has squandered with its doublespeak. While the protest movement hasn’t hit critical mass, any chance that a summer Ramadan would make protesters capitulate, with the fasting and the heat, just went out the window. And ironically it was the regime who guaranteed that. The good old military crackdown is now an anachronistic device to quell dissent in a country where such punitive action has defined it for so long.