Syria: At least 80-100 killed on Friday – how far can the regime go before crossing the ‘red line’?

Yesterday the regime of Bashar al-Assad faced the largest demonstrations yet, as people all over Syria answered the call of a great Friday of protests. Today, Saturday, some 80-100 of those protesters will be laid to rest, victims of indiscriminate killing by the hands of the brutal Syrian security forces. And today the same security forces will kill more Syrians as funeral-goers vent their rage at a bruised, battered and evermore-fearful regime desperately looking for a way to cling to power.

As I have written before and as should be abundantly clear now – the ‘reforms’ of Bashar al-Assad are nothing but window dressing; not worth the paper they are written on. This is what the protesters and those Syrians backing the protests, but staying silent, fearful of regime retribution, has thought all along. What is funny and at the same time sad is that it took this long for politicians in the ‘west’ to catch up. But yesterday they could no longer close their eyes to the fact that the lifting of the emergency law was nothing but a symbolic, meaningless gesture. Yesterday Bashar al-Assad proved to politicians in the ‘west’ what we all knew – he is no closet reformer but an authoritarian ruler. A Hafez al-Assad light.

And the reaction to Fridays killings from the ‘west’ was telling:

US President Barak Obama was blunt in his assessment, stating among other that the Syrian Government’s moves yesterday to repeal Syria’s decades-old Emergency Law and allow for peaceful demonstrations were not serious given the continued violent repression against protesters today.

The British foreign secretary Hauge’s statement yesterday echoed that of President Obama, saying among other that: The Syrian Government should address the legitimate demands of the Syrian people.  Political reforms should be brought forward and implemented without delay.  The Emergency Law should be lifted in practice, not just in word.

Our own Carl Bildt tweetedSyria violence turned worse today. Reform promises look empty. Urgent change absolutely necessary. For united, secular & democratic Syria.

Let us be frank. The regime of Bashar al-Assad’s only motive is to remain in power, to avoid the fate of Mubarak and Ben Ali. The regime has embarked on a strategy of concession and repression, so far a failure. Every step they have taken has emboldened or hardened the protesters’ resolve. Every ‘reform’ introduced a signal that protests work. Every death by the hands of security forces a call for more protesters to take the place of the fallen.

From the perspective of the regime what leaders in the ‘west’ ask for – meaningful political reform and urgent change – is not possible. This would mean the end of the regime. And they fear, rightly (?) that their fate would be that of Mubarak or Ben Ali, or worse as bitter memories – 40+ years of death, disappearances, torture, humiliation, repression and corruption – come roaring back to claim their due.

So the question is how long can this continue – how many more people can the regime kill before they cross the line of tolerance?

I would argue that, unfortunately, to cross this ‘red line’ is at present far away. Although UNSCR 1973/2011 could be seen as a ‘red line’ for a regime as Bashar al-Assad’s, the reality is that is was likely a one-off occurrence. The Arab league was ‘burned’ by their decision, and it is unlikely, given what is happening in Bahrain and Yemen and what is boiling under the surface of Saudi Arabia, to repeated their Libya decision unless the Syrian regime stoops to the level of Muammar Qaddafi and use airplanes, tanks and artillery at protesters. Small arms fire and the absence of massacres (massacre from the perspective of the Arab League, that is!) is not a ‘red line’. And without the backing of the Arab League, a move in the Security Council on par with Libya will not happen. There might be a possibility for a resolution in the Security Council condemning the Syrian regime, this might pass, but both Russia and China is fuming after the outcome of the Libya resolution, 1973/2011. Further more both USA, UK and France – the three interventionist states – have their hands full with Libya.

Another reason for the ‘power-that-be’ not to take the issue of the Syrian regimes crackdown to the Security Council or for the EU to impose targeted sanctions against people in the regime (freezing accounts, visa ban) is the fact that any action from abroad would be used by the-not-so-good Syrian spin-doctors (but good enough for al lot of Syrians) a as a ‘proof’ of a foreign conspiracy and would put a hamper any diplomatic initiatives.

So. The Syrian regimes sole interest is survival. The reforms the ‘west’ calls for will, in the eyes of the regime, mean their end and are thus not acceptable. The actions of the regime have pushed the protesters to demand regime change. The regimes answer to protests are to shot demonstrators. And meaningful outside action is unlikely that will not to take place. A bleak picture indeed.

It is therefore more than likely that the Syrian regime will continue with their failing strategy of repression and concessions. But in the end, in the long run this regime is doomed. The question is only how bloody this revolution will be. The factors to look for are cracks in the ‘wall’ of the regime, when the regime crosses the ‘red line’ of their own officials/supporters. So far two parliamentarians have announced that they will resign as well as an Imam from Daraa. This, the fracturing of the coalition of the regime starting with a couple of parliamentarians, Imams could quickly turn into a stream of government officials, such as members of the newly sworn in cabinet, and the army. This is what we should look and hope for. Change from within. But for sure this will be a bloody uprising no matter the outcome.

About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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