Make no mistake: the real battle for the future of the Middle East isn't being fought in Benghazi, Cairo, or even Manama, but in the streets of Damascus, Baniyas, Homs and a dozen other Syrian cities. Violent protests have continued across that country in recent days, despite a heavy crackdown by security forces. So far, at least 170 protesters have died in clashes with police and elements of the Syrian military.
The persistence of the demonstrators is rather remarkable, when you consider that modern Syria, run by the Assad family, is nothing more than a police state. When reform protests began a few weeks ago, the current Syrian dictator, Bashir Assad, wasted no time in mobilizing his security apparatus against demonstrators.
There have also been reports that fighters from Hizballah, Syria's terrorist ally in neighboring Lebanon, have been brought in to battle protesters, allowing Assad's police to maintain a slightly lower profile. It's also a sure bet that Assad's friends in Iran are also providing support, to prevent regime change in Damascus. The line has already been drawn in the Syrian sand, and the current conflict could easily end with a mass slaughter, similar to the one that occurred in the early 1980s. Western intelligence services and human rights organizations estimate that as many as 15,000 Syrians were killed by the regime after a series of anti-government protests.
Yet despite long odds--and the threat of escalating regime violence--the demonstrators are still taking to the streets. From Washington Post World
Syria’s military moved into the Mediterranean port of Baniyas early Monday, human rights workers and activists said, a day after at least 13 people, including four demonstrators and nine members of the state’s security forces, were killed in violent clashes there.
Other activists reported that the unrest in Syria had reached Damascus University, Syria’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning, in the nation’s capital.
Opponents of the Assad family’s dynasty said Monday that their numbers appear to be increasing.
“We are like a snowball that’s getting bigger every day,” said Haitham al-Maleh, a longtime opposition lawyer in Damascus who was recently released from prison.
The nearly month-long wave of protests has claimed an estimated 170 lives so far and presented the fiercest challenge to President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling Baath Party since his taking over upon the death of his father 11 years ago.
Thousands on both sides of the escalating conflict attended the funeral services on Monday for those who were killed Sunday, said Nadim Houry, senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. He also said his organization — and even activists in Syria — have had difficulty determining the death toll from Sunday’s violence.
Still, coverage of the Syrian uprising has been sporadic, for a variety of reasons. For starters, there are the problems with reporting on a rebellion in one of the most tightly-controlled dictatorships on earth. As you might expect, the Assad family isn't very keen on allowing foreign journalists into their country to cover the protests (you may have noticed the Cairo dateline on the WaPo dispatch). Currently, Reuters is the only major western news outlet with reporters in-country, but their staffers have been periodically detained by government security forces, while others have been expelled. So far, the Post, The New York Times and other media organizations have elected to keep their reporters in Egypt or Jordan--and out of Syrian jails.
But what about the Arab networks (notably Al-Jazerra), which bragged about its role in bringing down the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As Lee Smith notes in the Weekly Standard, the Qatar-based network has been very selective in its Syrian coverage, reflecting long-standing ties between the Doha regime and the Assads:
Arab satellite channels dedicated more air time to Syria than in the previous weekdays. The first 30-minutes of Al-Jazeera's news coverage were dedicated to clashes in Syria. However, Al-Jazeera, which has been exceptionally silent on Syria, perhaps because of the good alliance between Assad and Al-Jazeera's owner the Sheikh of Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, cherry-picked its coverage of Syrian rallies.
He also quotes Beirut Daily Star columnist Michael Young, who has noted the same trend:
Syria is part of the “resistance axis,” and the downfall of its regime would only harm Hezbollah and Hamas. The same lack of enthusiasm characterized the station’s coverage of Lebanon’s Independence Intifada against Syria in 2005. It is easy to undermine Ali Abdullah Saleh, Moammar Gadhafi, and Hosni Mubarak, each of whom in his own way is or was a renegade to the Arabs. But to go after Bashar Assad means reversing years of Al-Jazeera coverage sympathetic to the Syrian leader. Rather conveniently, refusing to do so dovetails with the consensus in the Arab political leadership.
And there's the rub: Syria, which has long sought to be a linchpin of the Arab world, has now assumed that role. The outcome of the Damascus "spring" will carry repercussions far beyond Syria's borders. If Assad falls, Iran will lose a key ally--and a key transshipment point for arms being transferred to Hamas and Hizballah. The loss of Syria would be particularly devastating for Hizballah; the terrorist organization would find it difficult to maintain its hold on Lebanon and would face Israel alone in future conflicts.
A successful rebellion in Syria would also energize regime opponents in the Gulf States and Iran, placing those regimes in greater peril. If Assad can be toppled, demonstrators in places like Riyadh and Tehran would be emboldened, resulting in massive protests and open challenges to the ruling cliques. As a result, the Syrian government will receive a lot of support in the coming weeks, as various government try to stop the string of toppling dominoes.
As for the Obama Administration, it has ramped up its rhetoric against Assad in recent days, but the language has been far less forceful than it was during the Egyptian rebellion, or the early stages of the Libya revolt. The White House is clearly afraid of getting ahead of the protests--particularly when the rebels have only a slight chance of success.
Indeed, certain elements in Washington are also pulling for Assad--as strange as that might seem. They view the Syrian government as a key partner in the Middle East peace process (never mind that it died months ago). From the diplomatic perspective, Assad is a known quantity, and if his government is weakened by the current revolt, he might be more inclined to cut a deal. It's convoluted thinking at best, but that's the way our diplomatic corps operates. Stick with the "known" devil" until a better option comes along, even if it benefits Hizballah and Hamas. .
Labels: Syria; protests; Bashir Assad