Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why so Syria?

With so little media coverage of the events in Syria, it's hard to tell what is going on there.  Judith Levy at Ricochet gives a primer:

The Assad regime has sharply ratcheted up its crackdown on Syrian civilians, and reports are emerging that Iranians and Hezbollah members are assisting them. That assistance, according to several reports including that of a Syrian defector interviewed on camera, entails shooting Syrian soldiers in the back who refuse to fire on protesters.

Assad has dispatched tanks to subdue Jisr al-Shughour, the northern town in which more than 100 Syrian soldiers are reported to have been killed last week. The regime is blaming protesters for the soldiers' deaths and is using the incident as justification for what sounds, from the sketchy reports leaking out of the town (all press are banned), like an exceptionally gruesome and vicious assault. As of this writing, the town -- pop. 41,000 -- is reported to be almost completely empty. The attack on Jisr al-Shughour appears to be part of a wider escalation by the regime: on Friday, Assad employed air power against protesters for the first time when he sent helicopter gunships to disperse crowds in Maarat al-Numaan.

Eyewitness testimony is being provided by refugees who fled into neighboring Turkey. The BBC, using this testimony, reported yesterday that Syrian soldiers are killing citizens, setting wheat fields on fire, and ripping out olive trees. One soldier who fled after participating in the assault on the town of Homs said, "When we entered the houses, we opened fire on everyone, the young, the old... Women were raped in front of their husbands and children." Another soldier who was in Homs said, "I realized that the regime is prepared to massacre everyone."
And the future?

[W]ill Assad bend to international pressure? Will he ease up on his people to secure his position?

No and no.

As Haaretz notes, Assad has the backing at the UN of Russia and China, so the disapprobation of the likes of Ban-ki Moon aren't losing him any sleep. And if he loses Turkey as an ally, what of it? He's still got Iran, and again, Russia's in his corner. A Libya-esque military intervention is exceedingly unlikely in view of Syria's strategic alliances, and Assad couldn't care less about non-military censure. Syria has weathered plenty of international isolation before now.

What about mass defections from the army, or mass refusals to take part in the crackdown? It's doubtful that either was ever very likely, and they're near impossibilities now that Iran and Hezbollah are taking care of clean-up. The opposition reports that defections from the army are in the hundreds, not thousands, suggesting nary a dent in the stability of Assad's military machine. And the opposition is its own problem. Haaretz reports that they're splintered over issues like "whether to call for international military intervention, how to build the post-Assad regime, how to divide the political pie among Sunni and Shi'ite, Christian and Alawi; between urban and rural, between tribal heads and urban elites." Any such dissension works in Assad's favor.
As I suggested earlier, mass defections from the army, packed as it is with Alawites loyal to Assad and fearful of Syria's Sunni majority, was never a realistic hope.

The New York Times has more on the sectarian divisions:

The Syrian government’s retaking of a town this weekend that had teetered beyond its control is sharpening sectarian tensions along one of the country’s most explosive fault lines: relations between the Sunni Muslim majority and the minority Alawite sect to which the family of President Bashar al-Assad belongs, residents and officials say.

Each side offered a litany of complaints about the other, according to interviews with refugees, residents and activists, suggesting, even in a small sample, deepening animosities in a country where the fear of civil war is at once real and used as a pretext for suppressing dissent. Syria is a volatile blend of Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Kurds and others inhabiting the same land, but with disproportionate political power vested in the Alawite elite.

Jisr al-Shoughour, where the government used tanks and helicopters to crush what it called “armed terrorist gangs,” sits in a landscape as complicated as anywhere in Syria. It is a Sunni town with an Alawite town less than a mile to the south, interspersed with Christian and more Sunni settlements.

One Sunni resident of Jisr al-Shoughour said he received a text message from an Alawite friend asking if his family was O.K. “I replied, ‘My two sisters with a baby have been killed,’ ” said the resident, who gave his name as Mohammed. Others accused Alawite neighbors of taking part in the crackdown, some coming from a town less than a mile away.

Some suggested that those same neighbors set up checkpoints on nearby roads, ostensibly to detain government opponents.

Alawites, on the other hand, shuddered at the prospect of Sunni insurgents who they believe may have helped wrestle Jisr al-Shoughour, at least momentarily, from government hands.

“I’m so worried that the country might be dragged toward a sectarian confrontation,” said Aqsam Naisi, an Alawite lawyer and human rights activist in Damascus. “Jisr al-Shoughour is one example, and I hope it will be one that passes.”

The prospect alarms outsiders as well, and has been one reason that the United States and Arab neighbors have as a whole been reluctant to push out President Assad. “The sectarian aspect, the divisions and the animosity are getting worse,” said an Obama administration official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“I don’t think it will go away,” the official added. “What happened in the northwest will only harden the Alawite feelings, harden them as a group, harden their animosity toward the Sunnis and vice versa. It will only harden this divide.”

The depth of sectarian divisions in Syria — a country no less diverse than Iraq and Lebanon, both neighbors that fought civil wars — remains in dispute, though they already have punctuated protests and crackdowns in towns like Baniyas, on the Mediterranean coast, and Tel Kalakh, near the Lebanese border, since the uprising erupted in March.

Syrian officials have suggested that militant Islamists have manipulated popular grievances and warned that the government’s collapse would endanger the relative security of Christians and other minorities there. Opposition activists have played down sectarian divisions, which they describe as a government ploy to sustain its four decades of rule. If anything, they say, the government has stoked tensions in a cynical bid to divide and rule.

The events in Jisr al-Shoughour are opaque — whether an armed uprising, a rebellion led by army deserters or a mixture of both.

But anger has clearly grown along with the uprising. Or, as another resident put it, “They are turning this into a sectarian battle.”

The prospect of sectarian strife underlines the very ambiguity of the Syrian protests, which erupted after the arrest and ensuing torture of 15 youths in the poor southern town of Dara’a. The demonstrations quickly spread across the country, building off everything from misery inflicted by a devastating drought in the countryside to the utter unaccountability of security forces in rural regions long neglected by Mr. Assad’s state.

While opposition activists and American officials have portrayed the protests as largely peaceful, even they acknowledge that armed elements have carried out attacks on security forces. The government says hundreds in its security forces have died, though the number pales before the opposition’s count of more than 1,300 protesters killed.
This Reuters report notes the economic importance of the region:
Thousands of Syrians fled the historic town of Maarat al-Numaan on Tuesday to escape tank forces thrusting into the country's north in a widening military campaign to crush protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
In the tribal east, where all of Syria's 380,000 barrels per day of oil is produced, tanks and armoured vehicles deployed in the city of Deir al-Zor and in Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, a week after tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding an end to Assad's autocratic rule.
"The army is coming, find safety for yourselves and your families!" echoed mosque loudspeakers in Maarat al-Numaan, a town of 100,000 that straddles the main north-south highway linking Damascus with Syria's second largest city, Aleppo.
Residents streamed toward Aleppo and to villages in the desert to the east, while some headed to neighboring Turkey, where more than 8,500 Syrians have already fled.
They sought shelter across the border to escape Assad's latest assault on protests demanding more freedoms in a country dominated by the Assad family, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, for the last 41 years. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim.
The Times reports the crisis is spilling over into neighboring Turkey:

The repercussions of the events in Jisr al-Shoughour have already reverberated across Syria’s border. By Monday, Turkey said nearly 7,000 refugees had fled across its border and, though it promised to care for them, the prospect of more displaced Syrians has alarmed officials there.
Criticism by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who considers Mr. Assad a friend, has consistently grown. Last week, Mr. Erdogan called the behavior of Maher al-Assad, Mr. Assad’s brother, who is said to have commanded the forces that retook Jisr al-Shoughour, “brutish and inhuman,” deeply angering Syrian officials.
The episode may have a more lasting impact as well.
So far, the government has relied on its support within the military and, more importantly, the intelligence services; the business elite; and the country’s religious minorities, namely Christians and Alawites. After recent events, Turkish and American officials say they believe that some of the business elite have begun to turn against the state.
You know all you need to know about Erdogan by knowing that he considers Assad a friend.  Still, Erdogan's relationship with Assad might be cooling:
Turkey is concerned that Syria will release members of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) that it currently has in custody, and potentially put more rebel fighters back on the battlefield. Syria has announced that its general amnesty applies to all political prisoners. The Syrians began freeing prisoners at the end of May.
Turkey doesn't need Syria releasing more PKK to fight the Turks.  Might this be Assad's way of reminding Erdogan of that?

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