One day after President Bashar al-Assad signed the decree abolishing 48 years of emergency rule the regime escalated the conflict. After the Friday-prayer on April 22 security forces attack in cities around Syria killing some 80 – 100 people. The following day mourners were fired upon, and in some cases wounded or killed, as they paid the respects to the fallen. And finally Bashar al-Assad sent soldiers and tanks to crush protests the city of Dara’a
Although the protests have now been ongoing for seven months and is estimated that some 2900 protesters have lost their lives the protests in Syria have not garnered the same support as in Egypt and Tunisia. Numerically the protests have been smaller, and mainly taken place outside the capital Damascus and the second largest city, Aleppo.
Bashar al-Assads deploying of tanks against unarmed protesters ought to have crossed a ‘red line’ in manner similar to Muammar Khaddafi. But the reactions form the international community have been limited to condemnations, calling for restraint and economic sanctions from the EU and USA.
To understand both the muted international response to the killings of protesters in Syria and the mixed support for the protests one has to understand the conflict between the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and the secular socialist Syrian Ba’ath. At that time President Bashar al-Assads father, the late Hafez al-Assad had ruled Syria since a coup in 1970. This conflict between religion and secularism, between Sunni and Alawi rocked Syria and the capital Damascus from 1976 – 1982. Bombings and shootings was a reality for ordinary Syrians.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood conducted their attacks on Syrian soil the campaign was led and coordinated from abroad. After an attempted murder in 1980 on Hafez al-Assad the regime retaliated and killed around 500 detainees at Tamdur prison. The conflict culminated in 1982 when members of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an uprising, took control over the city of Hama, a city dominated by conservative Sunni. The response to this was brutal when army unites consisting mainly of Alawis loyal to Hafez al-Assad and led by his brother Rifat descended on the city. For weeks they bombarded the old city of Hama before launching a devastating assault. A conservative estimation put the death tool at around 10 000.
This is the memory of political dissent and protests; violent sectarianism coordinated from abroad. Chaos and terrorism. This is an emotional scar for all Syrians old enough to remember. It is from this perspective that we must view the mixed support to protest.
Although today the Muslim Brotherhoods support in Syria is negligible being as they were all but wiped out, the protesters evoke memories of them with the middle and upper class Syrians. Mostly secular and comprising of members from all religious groups, they support Bashar al-Assad as he brought economic modernization and stability to Syria. They see the main block of protesters as religious Sunni, poor and rural. The Syrian regime has also amplified that view of the protesters through outright lies, slanted news reports and the use of security forces in civilian clothes playing the roles of armed gangs firing on protesters and police alike. So far little credible information supports the claim of the Syrian regime that armed gangs are responsible for killing of police and military. But the violent crackdown against protesters is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Protesters are radicalised and may find that armed struggle might be the only option left against a regime bent on crushing all opposition. Not surprisingly the protests have had difficulty gaining traction in Damascus and Aleppo, the two main cities where the middle and upper class holds sway.
In the international community there is now a persistent fear of what will become of Syria and the region should the regime of Bashar al-Alassad fall. What or who would take command? Would a nationalist-religious group, similar to Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, come into power? How would that influence security in the region with Israel and Iran and the stability of Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey?
The sectarian ghost of Hama have also made an appearance in the international community in the guise that Syria as the Yugoslavia if the Middle East. This assumption is based upon the fact that Syria is made up of a number of divergent religious communities and Kurds and Assyrians in the North East. But no deep running religious or ethnic conflicts permeates Syria.
This fear, both of the rise of extremism in Syria and sectarianism can be traced back to the conflict between the Syrian Ba’ath party and the Muslim Brotherhood. These fears are something the Syrian regime skilfully has used to stifle actions from the international community, projecting it as a choice between the stability of the regime or an Iraqi-like chaos.
In the early weeks of the protests USA, EU and Turkey called for reforms that meet the aspirations of the Syrian people. Today these calls are made by Russia, Syria’s greatest backer. But the goal of the regime of Bashar al-Assad is survival. To accept the demands of reforms that would lead Syria on the path to democracy mean the beginning of the end of the regime.
So far the Syrian regime has not played the sectarian card in full. No attacks have taken place against churches in the guise of Islamic extremists or against secular institutions. No bombs have so far gone off. Instead the strategy has been limited to painting protesters as extremists and terrorists and blaming all killings on ‘armed gangs’. But to think that the Syrian regime would not stoop to that strategy is a mistake. In the end Bashar al-Assad, his family and closest supporters are fighting for the survival of the regime. In such a struggle very few strategies no matter how brutal are out of the question.