Analysis: Syria - Is it on the threshold of a civil war?

Increase in violence likely – Alawi ruling elite is fighting for its survival and neither side is willing to back down.

Tank sits in Hama, Syria_311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tank sits in Hama, Syria_311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Assad regime’s brutal assault on the town of Hama should serve to dispel any notion that the struggle in Syria is nearing its end, or that the Assad regime has accepted its fate.
The general direction of the revolts in the Arab world now suggests that the region’s worst dictators have an even chance of survival, on condition that they have no qualms about going to war against their own people.
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Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have internalized the lesson.
Military theorists today are divided regarding the role of the main battle tank in the battlefield of the future. Assad over the past 48 hours has demonstrated that whatever the outcome of this debate, the role of the tank as an instrument of war against civilians remains highly relevant in the Middle East.
The Syrian President’s elite 4th Armored Division would be unlikely to last long against the IDF’s 7th Brigade on the Golan Heights.
Against the civilian protesters of Hama, however, it has proven a highly effective instrument. The death toll from Assad’s reducing of Hama now stands at around 140. There are hundreds more wounded.
Assad’s military machine is reported now to be descending on Deir a-Zour. The neighborhood of Al-Joura in the town is being shelled, according to opposition sources. There are persistent reports of large-scale desertions from the army in the Deir a-Zour area.
Protests in support of Hama have begun in Deraa, the birthplace of the revolt against the Assad regime.
Renewed protests in the environs of Damascus are also taking place. The response of the West to the events in Hama has been an additional notching- up of the rhetoric.
US President Obama is now “horrified” by events in Syria.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, professed himself “appalled” by the latest reports. Both the German and Italian governments have called for an urgent discussion of the issue at the UN Security Council.
Assad is unlikely to be unduly alarmed at this prospect. The international community remains divided on Syria. Russia, a long-term close ally of the Assads, has been critical of regime tactics but would be likely to veto any attempt at an effective response via the UN. The West itself is also lukewarm.
There is no enthusiasm among any Western public for further embroiling in Middle East affairs. Hague has explicitly ruled out military action.
The small demonstrations outside Syrian embassies in Europe are attended by Syrian expatriates alone. Those who were predicting a wave of democratization in the region six months ago now look hopelessly naïve. As a consequence, the US and European countries have yet to even call for the resignation of Assad. And the sanctions in place against him are far less than would be required to really force a change of policy.
And yet, with all this, the regime has found it impossible to quell the revolt. Since mid-April, it has been in a state of more or less open war against its own people. The latest increase in repression was designed to re-assert control over areas of particular rebel support before the onset of Ramadan. Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, has been the main focus of protests.
The regime doubtlessly calculated, correctly, that with the onset of Ramadan, the volatile crowds that have manned the demonstrations would be on the streets on a daily basis. It was therefore imperative to re-assert control in rebel areas.
In Hama, the Syrian military pursued this mission with extreme vigor. But if the regime hoped that this would finally allow them to begin to contain the unrest, it was wrong.
The crucial question now, is where all this is heading. The irresistible force of the uprising has met with the immovable object of the Assad regime. What is the prognosis? The answer appears to be an intensification of the efforts of both sides. The Assad regime’s efforts to crush the regime are taking on a more nakedly sectarian hue.
This is the Alawi ruling elite in Syria fighting for its survival.
Alawi military units and Alawi militias (the Shabiha) are the instruments remaining to the Assads. Sectarian revenge killings of Shabiha men by Sunni Syrians in Homs earlier this month may presage the opening of a new, uglier chapter.
The key issue remains whether the security forces will stay united. There are persistent, hard to verify reports of desertions in considerable numbers. An army colonel, Riad al-Asaad, has emerged in the last days, claiming to be the leader of a “Syrian Free Army,” on the country’s border with Turkey. It will soon become clear if there is anything to this claim.
But with neither side willing to back down, increased violence may well be the only logical direction for events to take. Assad has gathered the core of his Alawi regime around him, for a fight to the end. There are increasing numbers among the rebels, especially after the latest events in Hama, who will be determined to meet him head-on. The result: Syria today stands on the threshold of a slide into sectarian civil war.