Juan Cole

The Signs Are Ominous for Assad: Even Russia is Wobbling Now

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The events of the past five days in Syria may be a game changer, both domestically and internationally. Last Thursday, opposition forces said, 100 people were killed. Massacres were alleged in two towns. The daily death toll has been rising. On yesterday, Monday, AFP reported another 29 persons killed, including 23 civilians and 6 members of the security forces. Troops moved into the rebel-held town of Rankus north of Damascus, after besieging and shelling it for days. Rebels blew up a gas pipeline. Rebel troops, made up of deserters, ambushed a minivan carry 6 regime military personnel on their way to quell the rebellion.

On Sunday, the al-Hayat writing in Arabic had reported that 66 persons had been killed in violence. Some 22 of the dead were regime troops. That half the dead were combatants suggests a further militarization of the conflict.

Opposition spokesmen said that on Sunday troops killed at least 5 persons inside Damascus in neighborhoods taken over by the opposition. The army then went on to rebel-held Ghuta just east of the city, where at least 26 were dead in clashes after the regime sent in 2000 troops backed by 50 tanks. The fighting neared the capital itself. They described the battles as the fiercest of the whole uprising. “It was urban warfare,” once said. “There were corpses in the streets.”

Units of the armored division were sent to some six cities over the weekend, with the army shelling places such as Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zour, and Idlib. Regime use of tanks and artillery against its own population had provoked international intervention in Libya.

On Saturday, about 50 Syrian troops in the province of Homs had defected.

The contest between the Baath Party in Syria and its opposition over the past year has been surprising in its perseverence and longevity despite a stand-off that has given neither side any real reason for optimism. Usually when a popular movement has no real successes for months on end, it gradually peters out, as happened in Iran in 2009-2010. In contrast to Tunisia and Egypt, the movement had had little success in the capital or the second largest city, Aleppo. Massive crowds in the capital are important because they can be so large that security forces can no longer control them, and they can suddenly move on the party headquarters, the Ministry of the Interior, or the presidential palace. Their lack in Damascus has allowed the regime to survive. Opposition figures argue that the security forces are simply too strong in the capital, and that if there were less repression, the crowds would be out in large numbers. This argument is not entirely convincing. Egypt’s Amn al-Dawlah or state security police were no slouches either, after all.

But the extremeness of the violence in at least part of the capital this weekend marks a new level of challenge to the regime, and the very perseverence of the uprising all these long months, with the violence now spreading to the capital, bodes ill for the survival of President Bashar al-Assad. The high officer corps is loyal to the regime, being either relatives of the president or drawn from the same Allawi, Shiite sect as he. But the more brutal his army’s tactics, the less legitimacy he retains, and the brutality necessary to repress keeps being ratcheted up.

The intensification of the violence comes, as Ian Black at The Guardian notes, as the regional and international politics of the Syrian crisis is coming to a new boil. The Arab League’s observer mission, manipulated by the regime and proven useless, has been withdrawn. Two high Arab League officials are briefing the United Nations’ Ban-ki Moon and the League may go to the UN Security Council for an intervention, as it did with Libya. Russia expressed dismay at the Arab League decision. Russia has a naval base in Syria on the Mediterranean, and has long viewed Damascus as a client, going back to Soviet times, and wants to forestall UN intervention there.

The UNSC is expected to take up the Syria issue again on Tuesday. That the Security Council may become more aggressive in seeking an international resolution of the crisis frightens Bashar al-Assad, since most likely the international community would pressure him to step down and start a transition to a new order in Syria.

So far, Russia and China have run interference for Damascus at the UN. Russia may be especially reluctant to back down on Syria given the upcoming presidential election, in Which Vladimir Putin will want to look strong against the West. The Libya intervention was extremely unpopular in Russia, where it was seen as neo-imperialism, and forestalling American and European meddling in Syria might make Putin look strong at home.

On the other hand, the more brutal the regime becomes, and the more unpopular, the more Russia risks taking a big fall in the whole Arab world if the Baath collapses. Sami Moubayed argues that Russia is now backing an Arab League/ Saudi plan calling for Bashar al-Assad to delegate most of his power to his second in command, Farouk al-Sharaa, who should form a national unity cabinet with members of the opposition Syrian National Council in preparation for moving to new elections. (This plan resembles the Gulf Cooperation Council plan for Yemen, which, while so far implemented, has not worked very well). But that Russia is planning to meet Syrian oppositionists and seems to be content with al-Assad being pushed at least somewhat aside indicates that the president’s days may be numbered.

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