Like the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the one in Syria, the product of decades of fierce repression, was sparked by more immediate acts of defiance. As political analyst Emma Sky was told that “the problems in Syria began initially in Dera’a where some school children wrote on the wall the revolutionary chant heard on the streets of Tunis and Cairo: “as-shaab yurid isqaat al-nizaam” (the people want to change the regime). The local security official, detained the children, and had their finger-nails pulled out. This horrified people. The government did not respond in the right way. And protests began to increase across the country.”
Before this, the Bashar Asad presidency enjoyed relative popularity, especially among the youth of Syria. People had a tendency to associate corruption in the country with the repressive army apparatus, giving Asad the benefit of the doubt as a reformer. This, combined with the difficulty of uniting a population as diverse as Syria’s and the threat of violence against protesters meant that the government did not anticipate a substantial uprising. Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Syria, points out that “people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt…I think that in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if [protests] would happen, the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”
But the torture of children was a bit of a breaking point, one that brought people to the streets in greater numbers than people would have imagined, and opposition has only grown in the past four months. Protesters swelled to their highest number yet on July 30, the day before Ramadan, in the strategically important city of Hama. In 1982, about 20,000 people—many of them civilians, women and small children—were killed in Hama to crush an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is still the largest mass slaughter in modern Middle Eastern history. Political scientist Ora Szekely tells me that this “makes it a powerful symbolic choice for a crackdown, and also a potent symbol of resistance.”
The recent assault on Hama has provoked the fears of many in the international community about what is going to happen next. The UN is reportedly revisiting a resolution against the regime that was discarded several weeks ago due to opposition by China and Russia. Szekely says that “the recent round of crackdowns marks an escalation on the part of the Syrian military. The army had pulled out of Hama a few weeks ago, which had been viewed as a positive sign… By re-entering the city and using such extraordinary force, the regime is, I think, trying to re-establish dominance ahead of Ramadan, out of fear that gatherings during [the month] might provide a catalyst for further protest.”
She adds that this has some complicated effects on relations throughout the region, particularly for Hizbullah, since “Syria is either their most important or second most important patron, depending on who you ask.” As a result, she says, Hizbullah Secretary General “Hasan Nasrullah has been praising the protesters in Bahrain and Egypt more or less constantly, but has been more circumspect about Syria.” The disconnect, she notes, has been painfully awkward for the party. But they are watching events just as carefully as anyone else in Lebanon since “Syria has a history of externalizing its domestic problems into Lebanon; there’s some evidence that the Syrian invasion of 1976 had as much to do with domestic economic discontent in Syria as it did with calming the situation in Lebanon.” Because of this, limited military strikes on Lebanon are not out of the question.
Meanwhile in the Occupied Territories, Szekely says that “Hamas has more or less tried to stay neutral, after some initial hints that they were backing away from Asad’s regime. Depending on how things shake out in Egypt, they may not need Syrian support so much in the next couple of years” and may become more emboldened to criticize the regime in the months ahead. As for Israel, though cooperation between the two regimes should not be overstated and burgeoning conspiracy theories are unlikely to be substantiated, Szekely notes that “open war between Syria and Israel is pretty unlikely, and everyone seems ok with that—except for Lebanon, which is where Syria and Israel [have a tendency to] work out their [conflicts] instead.”
For now, it seems, the Asad regime may be banking on international meddling as a means of distracting the international community from focusing on ongoing human rights abuses against its people. It is impossible to predict what—if anything—the UN will do, but international condemnation is becoming more and more aggressive. There are indications that Russia is changing its position; journalist Sergei Strokan tells Al Jazeera that this has been a bit of an international embarrassment for Russia, which must now attempt to save face. Now, he says, “Russia…would be obliged to be involved in behind the scenes political [and] diplomatic maneuvering,” as well as “negotiations with major western powers under the framework of the United Nations Security Council to work out some all embracing comprehensive agreement—and probably some resolution which would, on one hand, rule out military operations, but at the same time voice strong condemnation over the killing of civilians.”
In the meantime, attacks on Hama and Homs continue. A few hours ago, it was reported that today’s “killings in the residential Hamidiyah district brought to 84 the number of civilians reported killed in a tank-backed crackdown on” Hama. Publicly, the regime shows no signs of backing down and, for the immediate future, seems to be escalating military operations. Just today, The Guardian reported that “the head of the political department of the Syrian army, Lieutenant General Riad Haddad, said…that Syria is facing the ‘closing chapter of the conspiracy,’” as the regime has branded the rebellion. Moreover, “Haddad called the army’s intervention in some Syrian cities an ‘indispensable necessity’ to defend and protect the country’s security and stability, and…put an end to armed groups that [allegedly] attacked people, smashed public and private properties and disrupted public life.” But the rebels seem to be emboldened by some of the international scrutiny and are not going away any time soon either. According to The Guardian, rebels explicitly note that they aim to prevent a recurrence of the 1982 slaughter. The UN Security Council begings talks on Syria at 5 pm Eastern Daylight Time in its New York offices. What happens next seems to be anyone’s guess.