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Syrian Regime’s ‘Fear Factor’ May Be Giving Way to Wider Protests

May 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Syrian government tanks shell residential neighborhoods, Judy Woodruff discusses what is next for the Syrian uprising with The National Defense University's Murhaf Jouejati and The Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Andrew Tabler.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more we turn to Murhaf Jouejati. He’s a Syrian-born scholar and a professor at the National Defense University. And Andrew Tabler, he’s a former journalist and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Andrew Tabler, to you first.

What more can you add to what we have reported just now?

ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, I think that the scale of a — the military crackdown is clearing growing. And your report reflected that.

I think the news of shelling, if confirmed, is very disturbing, because it gets us much closer to a scenario like that in February of 1982, in which the Hama massacre occurred, in which up to 10,000 or 30,000 people died, depending on the estimates. So, it’s a definite escalation on behalf of the Assad regime to snuff out these protests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Murhaf Jouejati, you are talking to people, connected to people in Syria. What are you picking up that you can add?

MURHAF JOUEJATI, National Defense University: The report is very accurate that we saw, but there is a lot more to it.

In many instances, in Daraa, for example, the families of the wounded do not dare take them the hospitals, because they would be arrested in the hospital. They would be killed in the hospitals.

And so you have many people who are wounded who are at home and literally dying. Security forces have gone house-to-house in combing operations, whether in Daraa or in Banias, or even in Homs, to arrest young men between the ages of 15 and 48. So, this is random, it is systematic and it is deliberate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How are they tracking people, Andrew Tabler? Is it just a matter we have been hearing of just any young man, or are there other methods being used?

ANDREW TABLER: There are general sweeps. There are also multiple reports of — of course, Syria has a giant firewall that was built by a European company several years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An Internet firewall.

ANDREW TABLER: That’s right. And it — and they use that to track Facebook and Twitter users, many of whom are behind and organizing the protests.

There are the traditional methods. They’re pulling out all the stops. They have many people in the security services who speak even foreign languages that are monitoring these — these sites. So they’re really using very sophisticated methods to crack down on the protesters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Murhaf Jouejati, is — are they being — are they discriminating? I mean, are they saying, all right, we know you sent an email, therefore, we will arrest you, or are they just picking up everybody in a block or in a house? I mean, what…

MURHAF JOUEJATI: I think they’re pretty much picking up a lot of people, many of whom are random.

So, it’s quite all right to pick up 10 if only one is guilty. And here, guilty, of course I use it very loosely, because these are, again, unarmed civilian protesters, who are in fact doing nothing wrong. But the regime has no hesitation, again, in arresting hundreds, if not thousands, of people in order to catch 20 or 25 culprits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have an understanding of what the difference is between those who have been killed and those who are being rounded up and arrested?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: What do you mean difference?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, are they making a — is there a deliberate choice being made; we will shoot you if you’re in the street, but we will arrest you if you’re doing something else?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: You know, it’s all open and it’s all dependent upon that security officer that is doing the arresting or the shooting. There have been snipers from rooftops that have been targeting heads of people or necks of people. They clearly have instructions to shoot to kill.

But they are also — in many instances, they have killed people who are already wounded.  So, again, there is really no words to describe what is going on, except that that is a very, very gruesome situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Tabler, what is the government saying? Do we know, inside Syria, what are they telling the population about the situation?

ANDREW TABLER: Yes, they’re blaming it on everything from terrorists to thugs to armed gangs to foreign instigators. Really, it’s an old narrative that they have used time and time again, which, of course, the Syrian people just do not believe. And they know exactly what’s going on. Every Syrian who lives in the country understands the situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why now? Why are they choosing this period? This has been going on, as we said, for almost two months. Why are they now escalating?

ANDREW TABLER: Because they’re getting very scared that the situation is — this is — we’re in, what, week eight now of the protests, I believe.

For a regime like this, this is catastrophic. The fear — the fear factor, the one that they have relied on for so long, is gone. And brave people are coming out into the streets, and they’re challenging this tyrannical regime in ways that were unimaginable to most of us who covered Syria.

And the problem is — for Bashar is, he can put them or attempt to put them back into the bottle and jump up and down on the stopper, but he’s not going to able to do much else, and it’s going to come back out. And, really, he’s in a real bind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it your sense that why they’re escalating right now, Mr. Jouejati?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: I think the decision to escalate was taken right after they had — quote, unquote — “lifted emergency laws.”

And the president himself said it that after this day, there is no justification for demonstrations anymore. And this was the signal that the regime was going to use decisive force against a civilian population.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and — and you’re saying they have just swept — they have swept the streets and swept…

MURHAF JOUEJATI: And they have swept the streets.

And they know, unfortunately, that the international community is still very divided and is only taking token measures against the regime. They know that, inside domestic society, it’s fragmented. And they are playing on this fragmentation, on this fear by distributing rumors, marketing rumors that, in the absence of the Assad regime, there will be a civil war based on sectarian differences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean by that?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: They are again scaring their own Alawi cohorts into thinking that these will be slaughtered by the Sunnis. They are scaring the Christians to say that this is the Muslim Brotherhood behind it again to sow fear among the population in order to give us a choice of either us, the Assad regime, or it’s going to be chaos and civil war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is — are we seeing more people engaged in the protests now, Andrew Tabler, or is it — are people backing off as they see people killed, wounded, killed…

ANDREW TABLER: People are still coming out and protesting. Now, they are being — shying away in areas where the military is fully deployed and ordering everyone to stay in their homes, of course.

But the protests spring up somewhere else. Again, this is a genie that’s — you really can’t put back in the bottle, because it comes out somewhere else. And this is Assad’s problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The interviews that we have seen — we saw the businessman Mr. Makhlouf…

ANDREW TABLER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … who’s close to Assad…

ANDREW TABLER: Very close.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … interviewed…

ANDREW TABLER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … saying — in essence, saying, if this regime falls apart…

ANDREW TABLER: That’s to scare us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … watch out.

ANDREW TABLER: That’s to scare us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have heard other confident statements being made by the regime that they think they’re winning.

Are they winning? I mean, how do you read it?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Mr. Makhlouf perhaps may have been the most frank among all the Syrian spokesmen, is that he is saying — and this is plain to read — that there is going to be a massacre if it is not — if the Assad regime is not going to survive.

He is very frank. And I think he is reflecting the opinion of the family, the Assad family, who, of course, is treating Syria as a family farm. The regime continues to have some confidence, again, as a result of the fragmentation of the protesters and the inability of the international community to do anything, this against their own determination to hang on to power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it confidence based on something, Andrew Tabler, or bluster?

ANDREW TABLER: I think it’s — I think that, definitely, the crackdown is going on. They think it’s going to be effective.

But I think it’s really only — only — winning — are they winning? No, because they’re not going to be able to solve this. This is not something that is easily solvable, because the very people that Assad is relying on, the minorities in the country, especially the Alawites, to clean up this matter in the security services, they’re going — if he launches reforms in the country, they’re the ones who are going to lose the most. And they know that.

And this is a real systemic problem for Assad. And he’s really in the hot seat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will certainly continue to monitor it.

Andrew Tabler, Murhaf Jouejati, we thank you both.