News Analysis / James M. Dorsey: Syrian protests becoming armed revolt?


The three-month old Syrian revolt against President Bashar Al Assad threatens to turn peaceful mass anti-government protests into an armed insurrection that will increase pressure on the international community to no longer stand by idly.

In what is likely to constitute a dramatic escalation of Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown on the protesters in which more than 1,000 people are already believed to have been killed, the president is preparing to retaliate for attacks by armed gangs in the town of Jisr al-Shoghour near the Syrian border with Turkey on government offices in which at least 28 security officers were killed.

Mr. Assad’s public relations machine has kicked into high gear. Within hours of the attacks, state-run media hiked the number of security personnel, police officers and civilians killed from 28 to 120 claiming that unidentified gunmen had massacred them.

Syrian media said the security men were killed when they responded to pleas by town residents to protect them from the gangs and “terrorist members.” Syrian media frequently refer to the protesters as armed gangs and terrorists. Syrian Interior Minister Ibrahim Shaar said the government was sending reinforcements to Jisr al-Shoghour to respond “strongly and decisively.”

Activists fear that the government’s assertions are designed to pave the way for fiercer retaliation against protesters in the town, which lies on a religious fault line dividing an impoverished, conservative Sunni Muslim area known for its arms smuggling and networks that span the Turkish border from parts of the country that are Alawite, the Shiite sect to which Mr. Assad belongs and was the scene of huge protests in recent days.

By playing on religious and ethnic differences, Mr. Assad may well be taking a leaf out of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s book. Mr. Saleh escalated violence in Yemen in recent weeks to enable him to crack down on his opponents even harsher than he had until then and to position himself as the only person capable of holding his country together.

The strategy suffered a serious setback when Mr. Saleh together with many of his closest aides was seriously wounded last weekend in an attack on his presidential compound in the capital Sana’a and flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

Unconfirmed media reports quoted witnesses and participants in the fighting in Jisr al-Shoghour as saying that the hostilities escalated when some of Mr. Assad’s troops defected to the side of the protesters in an indication that elements of the military and security forces could join in what threatens to become an armed insurrection similar to the NATO-backed rebellion in Libya against Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The incident in Jisr al-Shoghour is the most serious of a series of armed attacks on Syrian government targets in recent weeks in response to the brutality of the regime.

A Syrian military officer, identifying himself as First Lieut. Abdul Razaq Tlass denied in a television interview that the regime was fighting armed groups and called on his fellow officers to side with the protesters and protect them. Lieutenant Tlass is believed to be related to former Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass, a Sunni Muslim from Al Rastan, near Homs, a town also targeted by security forces.

The potential escalation in Syria poses a dilemma for the United States and Europe as well as for Arab states and Israel. The Obama administration and its allies have so far stopped short of calling for Mr. Assad’s departure because of uncertainty about who might succeed him; fear that Islamists factions could emerge stronger in a post-Assad era; concern that armed rebellion would split Syria along religious lines with Christians and Alawites backing the president and Sunnis and Kurds populating the rebels; and anxiety that the turmoil could spill across Syria’s borders into Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Lebanon, home to the Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia.

The escalating violence is however making it increasingly difficult for the international community to stick to the principle that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

That is not to say that there is any love lost between Mr. Assad, who was a key member of former President George W. Bush’s axis of evil because of his ties to Iran as well as Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas, and Western leaders such as President Barack Obama. Mr. Assad nonetheless was a predictable foe who refused to engage in US-sponsored Middle East peace efforts and efforts to force Iran to concede on its nuclear program but stopped short of rocking the boat.

French Foreign Minister Alain Joppe, in an indication that an escalation would force the US and its allies to review their view of Mr. Assad, warned Monday that the Syrian leader had “lost his legitimacy” to rule Syria. Mr. Joppe’s remarks were the first time a Western leader effectively called for Mr. Assad’s departure.

France and the United States have also stepped up their efforts to persuade the United Nations Security Council to condemn Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown. US and French officials hope the escalating violence will make it more difficult for China and Russia to veto a resolution. Both China and Russia fear that the resolution could be a stepping-stone to internationally-sanctioned intervention in Syria and like in the case of Libya would be exploited by western nations to attempt to topple the Syrian leader rather than protect the lives of innocent civilians.

The expected assault on Jisr al-Shoghour raises the specter of the 1982 attack on the city of Hama, ordered by Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez Al Assad to crush a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. Hama was pulverized by aircraft and heavy artillery. Up to 20,000 people were killed in the assault.

Repeating his father’s success in crushing the revolt may prove difficult for Mr. Assad. The 1982 rebellion was localized in one city, the current revolt envelopes multiple towns across the country. The international media were then like now barred from the country but technological developments like the Internet and mobile phones allow Syrians to defeat the blackout the government would like to impose.

Nonetheless, armed Syrian rebels are at a disadvantage compared to their Libyan counterparts. The Syrians will not benefit from support of neighboring states like Egypt and Tunisia in the case of Libya. Instead, they will have to rely on groups in Lebanon and Iraq to help them gain access to military hardware. The absence of support from neighboring countries would also complicate any future international intervention.

That will not prevent pressure on the international community to intervene from mounting. That pressure could increase significantly if the rebels succeed in winning support from Syria’s middle classes in the capital Damascus and in Aleppo, who until now have sat on the side line waiting to see how the revolt fares.

If there is one certainty, it is that the Arab revolt against authoritarian rule that has swept the Middle East and North Africa for the past six months is about to witness in Syria an ever more brutal and bloody summer.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])