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With Syria at crossroads, Bashar follows father’s example and chooses violence

With Syria at crossroads, Bashar follows father’s example and chooses violence

Syrian President Bashar al Assad has taken a leaf out of his father’s book. In 1982, Assad's father, Hafez, bombed the central city of Hama to smithereens after an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. When the senior Assad besieged the city, more than 10,000 people were killed. It remains one of the most brutal single episodes in the history of the Middle East. Now Bashar’s own forceful attempt to assert his authority in the face of rebellion may well prove his undoing. By KHADIJA PATEL.

On Sunday, a number of towns came under siege, but the fiercest operation was against the central city of Hama, where some activists put the number of casualties at 100. Activist accounts of the number of casualties vary making the numbers impossible to verify.

Billed the “Ramadan Massacre” for its timing on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the latest wave of violence is seen as a last-ditch attempt by Assad to stave off further protests in the month. Na’eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, a research institute dedicated to studying the Middle East and relations between that region and Africa, explained that the timing of the latest escalation of violence was especially significant. “The regime has for some time promised  to crush the protests,” Jeenah says, “Ramadan, when large numbers of people congregate for prayers daily, holds the potential for daily protests instead of the weekly Friday protests we’ve witnessed so far.”

According to Syrian human rights groups more than 1,600 people have been killed and at least 12,000 arrested since the protests against Assad’s Ba’ath party began in March. 

Since June, Hama, home to some 800,000 people, has been largely free of security forces, allowing it to assert a measure of independence. In recent weeks, residents have built makeshift barricades of everything from street lights to cinderblocks and sandbags to prevent security forces from re-entering the city. Their makeshift defences, however, stood little chance against tanks and armoured vehicles, which began their assault from four directions before dawn and continued for hours.

On Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a further 24 people had been killed, 10 of those in Hama. For years, Hama was remembered for Hafez al Assad’s brutality in overcoming rebellion and Jeenah believes the city “holds  great symbolic significance in the Syrian psyche”. That symbolism is, however, changing. “Hama previously held an intimidatory power over Syrians, but it’s now seen as an inspiration.” Singling out Hama for special attention then, is not the smartest move in the Assad playbook.

Watch: Syrian crackdown shows no respite (Al Jazeera)

Contrary to popular analysis, however, Jeenah believes the Ba’ath regime is still very much in control. “Until significant numbers turn out against the regime in Aleppo and Damascus (the two largest cities), Assad is in no danger,” he says. Jeenah also points out that while the protests against Assad have dwindled in numbers, pro-regime demonstrations have actually been larger than anti-government protests in either Damascus or Aleppo.

The assault on Hama has prompted widespread condemnation in the West and led European powers to dust off a dormant UN resolution condemning Damascus for violence against protesters. A revised text of the resolution was distributed to Security Council members at a closed-door meeting on Monday. After the meeting, several diplomats said that after months of deadlock in the council, the fresh violence appeared to be pushing the divided members toward some form of reaction to the Syrian regime’s use of violence. Envoys continue to disagree over whether the 15-nation body should adopt the Western-backed draft resolution or negotiate a less binding statement.

With Syria back on the agenda in the UN Security Council, the expectation of further sanctions against Syria seems the most likely expression of Western dissatisfaction.  On Tuesday, the European Union added Syrian defence minister Ali Habib and several other security officials to a list of members of Assad’s government already targeted for asset freezes and travel bans, but the UN is still debating exactly how to condemn the Syrian regime’s use of violence. The draft resolution expresses “grave concern” about the situation in Syria and condemns the use of force. It urges Assad’s government to lift its siege of Syrian towns, implement political reforms and launch an impartial investigation into attacks on anti-government demonstrations. The four European countries on the council –France, Germany, UK and Portugal — are each co-sponsoring the text of the resolution, but it faces stiff opposition. Lebanon, which is on the council, is likely to vote against the resolution. Jeenah feels South Africa, Brazil and Russia are also all likely to oppose the resolution. A Russian foreign ministry official appeared to stall any progress on the resolution when he voiced opposition to any Security Council measure that includes sanctions. A more plausible outcome of the wrangling at the Security Council is likely to be another subdued message urging Assad to act with restraint but late on Tuesday, Kremlin officials in Moscow suggested on Tuesday that they might have softened their position. It is still unclear whether Russia will support the Security Council resolution or some lesser form of reprimand aimed at Syria, or indeed veto the resolution altogether.

Sergei Vershinin, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa Department, is quoted as telling reporters in Moscow, “We are not categorically against everything. We are categorically against what doesn’t help bring forward a peaceful settlement.”

Among the most vocal in the call for sanctions against Damascus are the Syrian human rights groups and generically termed “activists” who feature heavily in coverage of the Syrian uprising. “Opposition activists” are said to have stepped up their lobbying for international sanctions against Syria’s miniscule oil industry to cripple its ability to finance the mounting repression of popular protests. There remains some doubt about the credibility and autonomy of these activists. Na’eem Jeenah believes many of the statements emanating from these activists require a “great degree of caution”. “WikiLeaks,” Jeenah says, “revealed that many Syrian NGOs received American funding.”  Many of the human rights agencies, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights mentioned here appear to be based outside of Syria. “Their objectivity”, Jeenah  says, “is doubtful.”

No less than US secretary of state Hillary Clinton met with such a group of “expatriate Syrian political activists” on Tuesday as the US battles to articulate an effective response to the latest of Bashar al Assad’s crackdowns. US President Barack Obama on Sunday said he was appalled by the Syrian government’s violence against its own people and promised to work with allies to isolate Assad. While the US may well court the Syrian expatriate opposition, there is as well an air of caution in how warmly the US embraces Assad’s dissidents. Na’eem Jeenah believes it is significant that the US has not yet asked Assad to step down. Jeenah adds that US ally, Israel may well not be pleased if Assad did indeed fall and leave Syria in the hands of an unknown force.

South Africa once again stands to decide how exactly the UN reacts to the latest bout of state-sponsored violence in Syria. A vote for a resolution espousing sanctions against Damascus may well haemorrhage the interests of the merchant class in the long-term, but is not likely to see any immediate effects. A more probable vote against the resolution, however, sees a preservation of the tenuous status quo and what will surely be a further test of the heart of the Syrian rebellion.

Your move, South Africa. DM

Photo: A Syrian living in Lebanon holds a poster of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad as he walks beneath a Syrian flag during a pro-government protest in Beirut June 24, 2011. Pro-Syrian Lebanese parties and Syrians living in Lebanon held a demonstration in show of support of Assad near the Syrian embassy. REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi


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