Assad’s looming downfall?

If Syrians have lost their fear, the regime may be doomed. But Bashar still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

March 25, 2011 16:24
Syrian protesters in Daraa

Syrian protesters in Daraa 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)


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In southern Syria, the uprising against President Bashar Assad is continuing. On Wednesday, six people, including a doctor from a prominent local family, were killed when the security forces entered the Omari mosque in Daraa. Later in the day, security forces fired live ammunition at people protesting these killings, leading to a number of additional deaths. Thursday’s death toll was far higher. Accurate figures for the number now killed in Daraa are impossible to obtain.

Following the killings in the mosque, the Assad regime’s official media began to spread a somewhat surreal version of events. The official Sana news agency quoted an “official source” as saying an “armed gang” had attacked a medical team in an ambulance near the mosque. The armed gang, according to the source, was also responsible for the stockpiling of weaponry in the Omari mosque.

Sana noted the determination of the security forces to continue their pursuit of “the armed gangs which terrify civilians, and execute killings.” The report went on to note that “more than 1 million SMS” messages had been sent out – “mostly from Israel” – which were “inciting” Syrian citizens to use the mosques as launch pads for riots. Sana’s official source also noted that SMS messages had been sent to Syrian citizens abroad threatening to kill them if they reported the crimes of the armed gangs. So far, so bizarre.

THE CLUMSY propaganda of the regime’s mouthpieces at first glance might seem to have something pathetic about it. The “Syria Revolution 2011” page is on Facebook, updating every few minutes with fluent, impassioned messages.

News and rumors of events in Banias, Aleppo, Deraa and its surrounding villages spread across the globe at the touch of a button. The most that the Assad regime can manage by way of information warfare, meanwhile, is this absurd, clunky, Ceausescu-style finger pointing.

Talking to Syrian oppositionists, the sense that the Assad regime is running out of options is indeed very strong. Some say the prospect of a “Hama rules” style bloodbath is now simply a bogeyman, a bluff on the part of a regime running out of steam. One veteran member of Syrian’s exiled opposition noted that the people of Syria had lost their fear. This meant the fall of the Assad regime could now only be a matter of time, whatever measures it took.

Despite the undoubted aesthetic inferiority of the Assad regime’s information campaigns, however, it would be a major mistake to start dusting off the eulogies for the Alawite/Ba’athist family dictatorship in Damascus just yet.

This may be the first time Bashar Assad has faced concerted internal opposition, but it is not the first time his regime has looked on the ropes. In 2004, when the Americans entered Baghdad, there were many who predicted the demise of the Assad family regime.

Syria was forced into a humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005.

What followed was a deft campaign by Syria of ruthless political violence, mobilization of proxies, intimidation and burgeoning alliance with Iran which has led, five years later, to a resurgence by the regime, riding high for the last two years. Assad did not accept what looked like the verdict of history in 2004/5. There is no reason to suppose he will meekly do so now.

The “toolbox” the Syrian regime utilized in the 2005-8 period served it well. It still possesses it. This same box of tricks is the common property of the various members of the Iran-led Muqawama (resistance) bloc in the region, which includes the Hamas enclave in Gaza, Hezbollah’s Lebanon and Iran itself.

Recent events suggest that this set of options is currently being utilized by various members of this bloc to telling effect. Its members believe these methods will not only succeed in insulating them from any internal fallout from the Arab spring, but will also enable them to press forward, making gains from enemies weakened by the internal dissent.

The Iranian hyperactivity of recent weeks fits this pattern – the weapons ships, the convoys in Sudan, the arms-laden planes intercepted on their way to Syria.

Hamas, too, appears to want to change the subject of the conversation in Gaza by provoking a new fight with Israel.

This is the camp of which Assad is a part. These are its methods.

There has even been speculation on Arabic websites regarding a possible Syrian angle to the bombing in Jerusalem. Islamic Jihad and the smaller secular terror groups are domiciled in Damascus, after all. And Syria, too, has an interest right now in changing the subject of regional focus.

Impossible to know, of course. But not impossible.

SEEN FROM this point of view, the events and messages of the week in Syria no longer look quite so anachronistic. The killings in the Omari mosque are serving to slowly spread an atmosphere of tension and fear across the town.

Sana’s absurd explanations only add to the sense of strangeness and slightly unhinged ambiguity which is the Syrian regime’s natural element.

The “strategy of tension” brought the Assad regime back from the doldrums after 2005. Not all at once, but over time. Proxies, provocations, the artful application of sudden violence, ambiguity, military activity disguised as politics, politics disguised as military activity. This is what the Syrian regime does. This is what the regional alliance of which it is a part does. And is doing. And is gaining from. The notion that there is only Hama-style massacres or the victory of Facebook revolution is simplistic.

There is another set of rules by which Syria, Hamas, Iran and their friends operate. Call them Muqawama rules.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Gloria Center, IDC Herzliya. His book The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel- Islamist Conflict was published in 2010.

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