Analysis: Syria falls back on fear to quell revolt

In this image from a mobile phone, people walk past pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday.
In this image from a mobile phone, people walk past pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday. STR / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Falling back on the tactics that have kept his family in power for more than 40 years, Syrian President Bashar Assad is gambling that fear — not reform — will break the popular revolt against his autocratic rule.

Assad's initial reaction to the uprising that began last month was to couple dry promises of reform with force to quell the discontent and keep his grip on power.

But when protests only grew, he turned to his overwhelming military power, intimidation, and terror — methods perfected by his late father, Hafez, who crushed a Sunni uprising in 1982 by shelling the town of Hama. Amnesty International has claimed that 10,000-25,000 were killed, though conflicting figures exist and the Syrian government has made no official estimate.

For the next two decades, until his death, Hafez Assad ruled uncontested and the massacre was seared into the minds of Syrians.

Though Bashar Assad has not done anything on the scale of the Hama massacre in his 11 years in power, his crackdown in recent days has evoked memories of his father's brutal legacy.

"There is an element of 'shock and awe' to the operation," said Joshua Landis, an American professor and Syria expert who runs an influential blog called Syria Comment. "Tanks are clearly not useful for suppressing an urban rebellion, but they demonstrate the superior firepower of the state and the determination of the president."

The escalating crackdown, relying more each day on military force, has killed more than 150 Syrians just since the weekend.

Military deployment
In a new phase that began this week, Assad sent thousands of soldiers rolling into cities, backed by tanks and snipers. His security forces made sweeping arrests, dragging people from their homes along with their families.

One Syrian in a city under military control said a man, his father and brothers were arrested just because they had an Internet connection.

In Daraa, the now-besieged southern city where the uprising began five weeks ago, soldiers were stationed at cemeteries, keeping tabs on relatives of those killed protesting.

The military deployment was an abrupt shift in strategy, from reacting to protests with force to pre-emptive military occupations of restive cities, towns and suburbs of the capital Damascus.

The use of overwhelming brute force to quell an uprising worked for Syria's close ally Iran when it quelled the 2009 "Green Revolution" triggered by a disputed presidential election. It also worked for Bahrain and Oman in the current wave of uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

On the deadliest day of the Syrian rebellion Friday — when more than 100 people were killed — President Barack Obama accused Assad of seeking Iranian help to use "the same brutal tactics" unleashed against demonstrators almost two years ago in Tehran.

Still, the stepped up use of force show no signs of quelling the uprising in the short-term. To the contrary, the opposition has broken the barrier of fear, keeping up and stepping up their street protests despite the brutal crackdown that has killed more than 400 people since mid-March. If anything, protesters enraged by the mounting death toll are escalating their demands to nothing less than the downfall of the regime.

With that, the possibility of a drawn out and bloody conflict looms.

And unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where popular uprisings succeeded in short order in upending long-standing autocratic ruler, Syria's power structure is dominated by Assad's long-reigning Alawite sect that will be much harder to overturn.

Ultimately, the armies of Egypt and Tunisia split off and sided with demonstrators in a final blow to the regimes. Syria's protesters, however, cannot count on that kind of support.

Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect, ensuring the loyalty of the armed forces by melding the fate of the army and the regime. The army has a clear interest in protecting the regime because they fear revenge attacks and persecution should the country's Sunni majority gain the upper hand.

Assad is counting on this unwavering loyalty now that Syrians are joining the protest movement in growing numbers and from a broader cross-section of society.

So far, the military has stuck behind Assad, although there have been smatterings of dissent within the ranks. Two witnesses in Daraa said soldiers were refusing orders to detain people, instead allowing them to pass through checkpoints to find food and water, days after the water and electricity services were cut.

Still, Assad could very well undercut the resolve of protesters with a prolonged campaign of sniper killings, beatings and torture.

Assad has played on fears of sectarian strife — so clearly destructive in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon — to persuade the public that the protests will bring nothing but chaos.

Rifts and divisions
Syria has multiple sectarian divisions, largely kept in check under Assad's heavy hand and his regime's secular ideology. Most significantly, the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Syria is a highly unpredictable country, in part because of its sizable minority population, the loyalty of the military and the regime's web of allegiances to powerful forces including Lebanon's Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran. Serious and prolonged unrest are likely to hurt the regime's proxy in Lebanon — Hezbollah — and weaken Iran's influence in the Arab world.

Also, Assad's image has been irrevocably tarnished.

Credited with modernizing Syria and opening up the economy, Assad had maintained a level of popular support, in no small part because of his anti-Israel policies, which resonate with his countrymen. But the mood over the past four weeks has changed markedly.

The brutal crackdown has altered a view held by many people — in Syria and abroad — that Assad is a reformer at heart who was constrained by members of his late father's old guard who are clinging to power, fearing an end to their privileges.

"I think people will not accept to go back to the status quo," said Nadim Houry, Beirut director at Human Rights Watch. "They might be crushed into accepting it for a while, but the genie is out of the bottle."

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Kennedy is the Associated Press chief of bureau for Syria and Lebanon.