Since then is has become increasingly clear that legal change will not lead to a change in tactics. On Monday, tanks and troops from Maher Assad’s infamous fourth division rolled into Dara’a, placing the city under siege.
They conducted house-by-house searched with knives and automatic weapons, while at the same time positioning snipers outside to shoot on sight. Nearly fifty were reported killed.
The death toll continued to rise as at least a dozen mourners were killed while trying to bury the dead. By weeks end well over 150 were said to be dead, although, like much of the information coming out of Syria, this cannot be independently verified.
In light of the crackdown, there have been defections from regime. This started with the resignation of MPs Nasser al-Hariri and Khalil al-Rifae, and a top religious leader early in the week. Recently, more than 200 Baath party members, and possibly members of the army’s fifth division, have followed suit.
This level of violence we have seen is far from unexpected, but does indicate that the revolution is entering a new phase. With hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets, it is likely that the fear barrier has been broken. The rules of the game are starting to change. Unfortunately, this leads to more questions than answers:
– Will this become a cycle of escalation; with an increase in protesters leading to greater violence? If so, how does this cycle get broken?
– Who’s leading the opposition movement? What are its goals besides the obvious toppling of Assad?
– Will we see further military or political defections, and at what level?
– Assad seems saner than Qaddafi and more defiant than Mubarak. How far is he willing to go?
– The chaos question has to be looming on peoples’ minds: if Assad leaves, what next? Even though around 80% of the population is Sunni there is potential for sectarian clashes (Sunnis, Alawis, Christians, Druze, etc.) during the formation of a new government.
The Syrian case is going to be the biggest challenge that the west has faced so far. Aside from the obvious dilemmas, Syria is also a major player in terms of regional power dynamics. Continued violence in Syria cannot be isolated like it has been in -Libya. What happens to Assad will have a major affect on Iran, Israel, and Turkey, to name just a few.
We can try and look at the other Arab uprisings for clues about the future, but this should be done cautiously, as every country possesses unique characteristics.
Egypt: like Mubarak in Egypt, Assad and his family have ruled Syria with emergency laws, media oppression and a general iron fist for decades. This difference is that Assad’s repression was miles ahead of Mubarak’s at the time the respective revolutions broke out. Syria fit the stereotype of a true “police state” much better than Egypt.
– Libya: like Assad, Qaddafi has been more than willing to use firepower against his own people. But, Assad is much more calculating, more strategic, and generally saner. As a counter wait to Assad’s, the opposition in Syria has kept the moral high ground by refusing to pick up weapons. In Libya the opposition movement quickly became an armed rebellion.
Yemen: the “what next” question is ever-present in both Yemen and Syria. There won’t be a smooth transition of power in either country, like we saw in Egypt. In Yemen the fear is that if Saleh steps down the country will descend into civil war between rivaling powers (tribes, Houthis, secessionist south, old regime, etc.). In Syria, the entire government would have to be replaced, and with no plan in place to do that, there could be severe short-term unrest if Assad were to resign.
Bahrain: here a Shia majority is protesting against a Sunni controlled government. In Syria it is the opposite. Both movements started of with demands for reform, and both governments reacted with increasingly violently. Both countries have powerful foreign supporters; Saudi Arabia in Bahrain’s case and Iran in Syria’s. Despite all of these similarities, the scale is much larger in Syria and the stakes higher.
This Friday, like most, will be very telling for Syria.
The opposition will be stronger, possibly in terms of numbers, but more importantly they have had time to organize. Momentum is on their side, especially with today’s defections and a Muslim Brotherhood endorsement.
The Assad regime will follow through on its threats of increased violence, but must rely on the loyalty of the army to do so. Maher’s fourth division and Assaf Shawkat’s security forces cannot carry the load forever. However, there have been few signs of as a mass military mutiny.
At this point the Assad regime seems to have the upper hand, but opposition movements across the region have proven that they can turn the tide in the blink of an eye.
Written by Tik Root a student at Middlebury College.