Ghosts of Hama

Syrian regime crushing revolt as world watches

Syrian crisis continues 370 R (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian crisis continues 370 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
In early February, 1982, Syrian dictator Hafez Assad set out to crush a brewing rebellion by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood centered in the city of Hama. In a 27-day assault largely ignored by the world media, the Syrian army’s most elite units encircled the town with tanks and artillery and proceeded to shell the entire population into submission. Casualty estimates ranged between 10,000 and 35,000 dead. The Brotherhood was not heard from again… until now.
Survivors of the Hama massacre marked the 30th anniversary of the bloodbath on February 3 this year, amid another uprising that has plunged the country into open sectarian warfare.
Despite a brutal crackdown by Hafez’s son Bashar that has claimed 10,000 lives since last March, the daily opposition protests have persisted, and now armed clashes between the regime’s loyalist forces and members of the insurgent “Free Syrian Army” have crept into the suburbs of Damascus.
Triggered by the Arab Spring, the revolt has defiantly survived Assad’s best punches, and many analysts predict his inevitable ouster. On the radio, TV and internet, residents of Hama boldly spoke of their will to triumph this time.
“In the 1980s it was a battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government, but today the regime is battling a nationwide revolt,” said Muhammad Sarmini, a native of Hama and member of the opposition Syrian National Council.
The Assad dynasty and the security apparatus which keeps it in power consist mostly of Alawites, an offshoot brand of Shi’a Islam rejected as heretical by most fellow Muslims. In a system originating in the French mandate era, the Alawite minority, with only 11 percent of the population, has dominated Syria for decades.
After seizing power in a coup, Hafez Assad began establishing various layers of insulation to protect his ruling clan. The Assads married into the Saudi royal family and created various Palestinian militias to do their bidding in neighboring Lebanon and elsewhere. For the last 30 years, they have also forged a strategic alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.
In addition, Damascus has been a long-standing client of Moscow, which values Syria as a buyer for its weapons industry as well as for the use of Tarsus, Russia’s only warm-water port in the Mediterranean and now the only military base it retains outside the former Soviet Union.
But the vast majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, and in recent months thousands of Sunni members of the Syrian regular army have deserted, forming the rebel Free Syrian Army, which enjoys the protection of the Sunni Islamist government in Turkey.
Led by disaffected officers and, according to rumors, aided, armed and financed by various Islamist groups and even governments throughout the Middle East, the FSA is nonetheless still massively outgunned by troops loyal to Assad. The units under his direct control and under the command of his brothers and cousins are the elite troops that for years have received the lion’s share of money for training and equipment.
Being Alawites, they are also highly motivated, because they know that if the regime falls, they and their families would face a campaign of revenge.
But so far, the Free Syrian Army has had limited success. Hence, a group of army deserters led by General Ahmed al-Sheikh, the highest-ranking deserter so far, announced the formation of the Higher Revolutionary Council in early February, in a direct challenge to the FSA. The Syrian National Council, a group of technocrats attempting to form a government-in-waiting to replace Assad’s regime when it falls (much like the Libyan transitional council), has also failed to gain widespread support, largely because it mostly consists of exiles who have been living outside of Syria for decades.
All of these political maneuverings have taken place against a backdrop of ferocious violence. An Arab League monitoring team entered Syria but failed to stop the bloodshed and finally abandoned its mission in late January.
Opposition groups complained that the violence actually intensified after the monitors arrived, and at least one monitor quit in disgust, telling Al Jazeera that the entire affair was a “farce” which only gave Assad cover to commit even greater atrocities.
After the termination of the Arab League mission, League Secretary- General Nabil Elaraby led a delegation of Arab foreign ministers to New York to submit a resolution to the UN Security Council calling on Assad to hand over power to his vice president, go into exile along with his immediate family and allow a deputy to begin dialogue with the opposition. The proposed resolution also included calls for the regime to withdraw troops from residential areas and free prisoners detained in protests.
The proposal drew wide support from 13 countries on the Security Council, but on February 5 Russia and China each cast a veto, in a move widely condemned by the West and Arab states.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the joint veto as a “travesty” and vowed to “expose those who are still funding the regime and sending it weapons that are used against defenseless Syrians, including women and children.” The Syrian National Council charged that Russia and China had given Assad a “license to kill.”
“Moscow is right that without Assad it might lose its arms contracts and naval base in Syria,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. “Yet by quixotically clinging to Assad as his grip on power slips, Moscow risks making that fear a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assad’s successors will not forget Russia’s role in prolonging Syria’s suffering.”
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, before heading for Damascus to consult directly with the embattled Assad, told reporters that the Western and Arab reactions “verged on hysteria.”
Meanwhile, Syrian, Russian and Chinese embassies were attacked in numerous countries, and boycotts of Russian and Chinese goods were declared by consumer groups all over the world. The US, UK and other countries closed their embassies in Damascus and considered expelling the Syrian diplomatic missions in their own capitals.
Still, the possibility of a Libya-style military intervention in Syria was ruled out by NATO countries. The Arab nations are loathe to agree to such a move, and neither are they prepared to accept a military incursion by the one country seemingly willing to undertake it – Turkey. The centuries of oppression under Ottoman Turk rule still remain too fresh in Arab minds.
“What we are seeing is horrendous.
The result will probably be bloody, and unfortunately the Russians are backing him,” said Turkish diplomat Selim Yenel. “The regime is not just a person, or one family. It’s a big group of people and... They want to hold on to power.
That’s why we are fearing it is going to turn into a civil war, and this civil war could turn into a regional conflict.”
In the face of increasing international isolation and an intensifying revolt at home, the Assad regime has stayed on message, insisting that it is fighting “terrorists” and “armed criminal gangs” being directed by a mysterious “foreign hand” which wants to destroy Syria.
But a growing chorus of Syrians, including senior officials and army officers who have deserted Assad, insist the only “foreign hand” in Syria is the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran and their terror proxy Hezbollah, who have arrived in large numbers to help Assad murder his own people.
“The situation is now very dangerous and threatens to explode across the whole region, like a nuclear reaction,” warned Gen. Sheikh after taking refuge in Turkey last month. “There is no time.
We want very urgent intervention… a coalition similar to what happened in Kosovo and the Ivory Coast.”
Sadly, he will not likely get his wish.
The world is once again standing by while the Assad dynasty butchers the opposition.