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The Syrian Spiral

The Syrian Spiral

As I write these words, demonstrations are unfolding in the public squares of Syrian cities and towns, as they have done every Friday for the last eleven months, since the people of Dir’a first took to the streets to manifest their discontent at the indignities imposed upon them by the Asad regime.

Grainy scenes of crowds heaving, swaying, chanting slogans, singing revolutionary songs flash across the screens of Arab satellite channels, scenes of jubilant defiance and anger.

And, as I write, the violent repression of these protests continues. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and al-Jazeera (in Arabic) report that 25 individuals have been killed already in the besieged city of Homs and the countryside of Damascus. Another 83 died yesterday across Syria, according to the Observatory, while the Local Coordination Committees put the figure higher still, at 126 – 107 of them in Homs alone.

Overnight, army tanks entered the Insha’at neighbourhood of Homs, prompting fears of a broader ground assault, to follow the week-long artillery campaign on the city, which activists estimate has led to the loss of more than 400 lives.

Reports emerging from the city testify to the use of long-range shells and mortar to pound the residential neighbourhoods of Baba ‘Amr, al-Khalidiyya, al-Insha’at, and Bayyada, and to a worsening humanitarian situation. Human Rights Watch reports that hospitals are unable to cope with the number of casualties, while Al-Jazeera’s Beirut correspondent Rula al-Amin reports that medical supplies and food are running dangerously low (see links above).

There is no doubt that armed contingents of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are present in several neighbourhoods of Homs. However, these deserters number no more than a few hundred or thousand men – a stark reminder of the deep asymmetries of power between these dissident forces and the Syrian regime, which has insistently claimed that it is faced an uprising by “armed bands” (‘isabat), while using to the fullest its military superiority.

In other places, including the coastal cities of Banias and Latakia, in the ‘Alawi heartlands, and the Damascus suburbs of Duma and Daraya, troops have deployed to prevent demonstrators from congregating after Friday prayers.

Meanwhile, several car explosions went off in the northern city of Aleppo, killing 25 and injuring more than 175 according to Syrian state television, which has blamed the attacks on “armed terrorist gangs”.

The General Council for the Syrian Revolution, for its part, has accused the regime of plotting the attacks to foment unrest. This claim was echoed by an activist in the city itself who, citing “suspicious activity by security personnel” in the moments before the explosion, told the BBC that “we hold the Syrian regime entirely responsible for this action”.

Further confusion has arisen from the conflicting claims of different contingents within the FSA. While one officer reportedly told Al-Jazeera’s Beirut correspondent Rula al-Amin that the FSA was responsible for the attacks, the Syrian National Council has issued a statement from the FSA in which it categorically denies any role in the attacks.

This latest blast will only increase the virulent controversy in the blogosphere between supporters of the regime, who see in them confirmation of government claims that the protests of the past year are born of a “terrorist” “conspiracy”, and its opponents, who believe that they are one more cynical act of official violence, designed to keep the populations of first Damascus, and now Aleppo, quiescent.

Syria, it is clear, has entered a vicious spiral of violence. The spectre of instability, which the Baathist regimes of Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad have long boasted of holding at bay while neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq were consumed by internecine strife, is now at the door.

Many within the country, of course, had already resigned themselves to protracted unrest before the failure of the UN Security Council to reach agreement on a Draft Resolution supporting the Arab League’s efforts to secure a negotiated transition of power in Syria on the Yemeni model.

However, it does seem that the decision of Russia and China to veto this Draft Resolution has galvanized both the regime and the opposition to ramp up their activities.

While the regime has seen this veto as a license to continue in its repression, the continuing division of the international community on the vexed question of Syria has only added to the intransigence of many activists; despairing at their enforced isolation, they have become more obdurate still in their desire not to give in.

Thus, in a video message circulated on social networks on 6 February, the Humsi activist Khalid Abu Salah allied a call for assistance with a message of resilience. After appealing to “every noble human being to save us here in Baba ‘Amr, to save the children and the women in Baba ‘Amr”, he turns away from the camera for a brief moment, as gunfire resounds outside, and the clip seems to draw to an end.

Then, turning back, he addresses words of defiance to the Syrian president: “Ya Bashar, don’t think we’re going to surrender, if you killed all of us we wouldn’t surrender … if you killed all of us we wouldn’t surrender.”

Khalid Abu Salah’s “Appeal to the Free World”

There is no doubt whom Syrian opposition activists blame for the lack of support they receive. While the Local Coordination Committees have in the past berated the general inaction of the international community, naming one of their Friday demonstrations, in a sharp rejoinder to the international community, “Your silence is killing us”, they have chosen to call this Friday “Russia is killing our children.”

Russia has responded in kind to this deliberately emotive message. In a statement issued earlier today, its Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, accused the West of being “accomplices in the process of inflaming the crisis”, and insisted that the opposition’s refusal to enter into talks with the regime of Bashar al-Asad meant that it “bears full responsibility for improving the situation”.

It is clear that Russia feels stung by what it regards as a deliberate manipulation of the Security Council to prosecute regime change in Libya, and many critics of intervention have echoed its claims that any international action in Syria would be ruinous.

In a particularly caustic piece, the Columbia professor Joseph Massad has claimed that intervention of one kind or another would only serve what he calls “American imperialism in the Middle East”, berating the “exile opposition” for having “hijacked the popular uprising against the Asad dynasty.”

But such claims overlook two crucial factors.

The first is that there exists no stark divide between opponents of the regime within the country and those in the Syrian mahjar, or diaspora. Opposition activists certainly disagree on key issues – not least that of international intervention – but the schism does not run along geographical lines.

The Syrian National Council itself, despite repeated assertions to the contrary, is not simply an exilic organization with few ties to those within Syria. While its figurehead, Barhun Ghaliun, has long been settled in France, other members of its executive committee, like Samir Nachar, have only very recently left Syria.

In a note posted on its Facebook page a few weeks before the official announcement of its formation on 1 October 2011, the SNC itself claimed that while 60% of its members were abroad, another 40% remained within Syria itself.

Moreover, it is clear that the SNC, far from the pipe-dream of ambitious émigré schemers, developed from reformist trends within Syria in the early to mid-2000s, such as the Damascus Declaration of 2005.

The second is that Russia and China, by blocking the proposed resolution, have themselves intervened in this internal conflict. Though some have justified their claims by pointing to the need to respect the sovereignty of the Syrian state, the notion that the West is, alone, contemplating intervention is harder to countenance.

To intervene, one need not put troops on the ground, nor send fighter planes or frigates – though, of course, Russia has already done just that, having despatched a naval flotilla led by the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov to its own naval base in Tartus in November 2011, in a show of support for the regime of Bashar al-Asad…



Andrew Arsan

Andrew Arsan is currently a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. A historian of Lebanon and the Lebanese diaspora, he divides his time between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Middle East.