Syria conflict descends into ‘war of attrition’

Posted Aug. 08, 2011, at 10:08 p.m.

BEIRUT — Despite five months of blistering attacks on dissent, the Syrian regime has yet to score a decisive victory against a pro-democracy uprising determined to bring down the country’s brutal dictatorship.

President Bashar Assad still has the military muscle to level pockets of resistance, but the conflict has robbed him of almost all international support.

Even Saudi Arabia this week called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, the first of several Arab nations to join the growing chorus against Assad.

The Syrian leader is being watched carefully at home and abroad to see how long his iron regime — which is still strong but wobbling — will continue to use tanks, snipers and security forces on hundreds of thousands of fervent, overwhelmingly young protesters who keep coming back for more.

“Syria is not burying the revolution,” said Nabil Bou Monsef, a senior analyst at the Arabic-language An-Nahar newspaper. “Protests are resuming everywhere, even in areas that were subject to crackdowns.”

He added: “It is difficult for one of the sides to win. Syria has entered a war of attrition between the regime and the opposition.”

There is little to stop Assad from calling upon the scorched-earth tactics that have kept his family in power for more than 40 years. A longtime pariah, Syria grew accustomed to shrugging off the world’s reproach long before the regime started shooting unarmed protesters five months ago.

A military intervention has been all but ruled out, given the quagmire in Libya and the lack of any strong opposition leader in Syria to rally behind. The U.S. and other nations have little power to threaten further isolation or economic punishment of Assad’s pro-Iranian regime — unlike in Egypt, where President Barack Obama was able to help usher longtime ally Hosni Mubarak out of power.

International sanctions, some of which target Assad personally, have failed to persuade him to ease his crackdown. There had been hopes, since dashed, that European Union sanctions would prove a humiliating personal blow to Assad, a 45-year-old eye doctor who trained in Britain.

Until the uprising began, Assad had cultivated an image as a modern leader in a region dominated by aging dictators. He was seen around Damascus with his glamorous wife, Asma, who grew up in London and was the subject of a glowing profile in Vogue just before the protests erupted. The couple’s three small children added to their luster as youthful and energetic.

But the relentless military assaults on rebellious towns have only grown more deadly. The latest wave of bloodshed started a week ago, on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, when tanks and snipers laid siege to Hama, a city in central Syria that had largely freed itself from government control earlier this year.

Residents were left cowering in their homes, too terrified to peek through the windows. The city is haunted by memories of the regime’s tactics: In 1982, Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement there, sealing off the city in an assault that killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people.

Since the start of Ramadan, more than 300 people have been killed in cities including Hama and Deir el-Zour, an oil-rich but largely impoverished region known for its well-armed clans and tribes whose ties extend across eastern Syria and into Iraq.

Syria has blocked nearly all outside witnesses to the carnage by banning foreign media and restricting local coverage that strays from the party line, which states the regime is fighting thugs and religious extremists who are acting out a foreign conspiracy.

Besides the secretly recorded videos that leak of Syria every day and accounts by witnesses who whisper down telephone lines, Assad has managed to keep the eyes of the world off his bloodied nation.

But Syria’s troubles do not end at the country’s borders.

Syria is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East, bordering five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel’s case, a fragile truce. Its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

A destabilized Syria, consequently, could send unsettling ripples through the region.

Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

Alawite dominance has bred resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity. But he now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed relatives, to crush the resistance.

The uprising has brought long-simmering sectarian tensions to the surface.

In the revolt’s early days, it became clear many foreign leaders were loath to see Assad go. While few supported his policies, Assad had managed to keep his country stable and out of war with Israel.

Mindful of this backhanded support, Assad exploits those fears of chaos and sectarian warfare, portraying himself as the only man who can guarantee stability.

But the early, muted response to the bloodshed in Syria is over.

This week, Arab nations have joined the international chorus against Assad for the first time. Saudi Arabia’s king — who does not tolerate dissent in his own country — demanded “an end to the killing machine” and recalled his country’s ambassador to Damascus late Sunday. On Monday, Bahrain and Kuwait followed suit.

A statement posted on a Facebook page used by protesters lauded the Arab governments for recalling their envoys.

“Arab governments stood and faced the butcher Bashar al-Assad, and stood on the side of the great Syrian people,” said a statement on the “We are all Hamza al-Khatib” page, set up in honor of a 13-year-old boy who was killed in the crackdown.

The U.S., the European Union and even longtime ally Russia have issued scathing statements against Assad, imploring him to stop the bloodshed. The U.S. and the EU have imposed sanctions.

Despite his determination to stay in power, Assad’s regime is undoubtedly hurting.

The security forces, which are the backbone of the regime and the driving force behind the culture of fear and paranoia in Syria, are overextended, exhausted and underpaid.

The unrest is eviscerating the economy, threatening to hurt the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. An influential bloc, the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for enriching economic privileges.

It is unlikely, however, that they will abandon the regime entirely without a viable alternative.

“Before they will help overthrow the Assads, they need a safe alternative,” Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, wrote in a recent analysis.

“They are not going to embrace — not to mention, fund — a leaderless bunch of young activists who want to smash everything that smells of Baathist privilege, corruption and cronyism,” said Landis, who runs an influential blog called Syria Comment.

But the revolution has tapped into an underlying well of resentment in Syria, a closed society in which people had long been deeply fearful of a pervasive security apparatus. Now that protesters have broken through that wall of fear, many observers see little chance of turning back.

“The regime is now the prisoner of the security solution, and the opposition will also become a prisoner of escalation,” said Bou Monsef, the An-Nahar analyst. “Syria has entered a tunnel, and it’s difficult to know how it will end.”

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