Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have all had their turns in the international spotlight, and their leaders are now moving forward, however precariously, with plans to build democratic institutions and establish the rule of law. But in Syria, even as the spiral of violence has worsened, the crimes of the Assad regime have faded from the headlines, and from the dossiers of Western officials.
Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch wrote in testimony submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that more than 3,500 people have been killed in the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on protests in cities like Homs and Hama. Snipers have targeted civilians from rooftops, soldiers have sprayed bullets indiscriminately into funeral processions, and tens of thousands of civilians have been jailed, tortured or simply vanished.
Syria, to be fair, presents perhaps the most vexing challenge of the Arab Spring. Egypt’s and Tunisia’s autocrats were considerably more pragmatic than Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and even though they were both in their own ways desperate and corrupt, they relented — or fled — when they realized their positions were untenable. In the case of Libya, there were clear signs of an impending civilian massacre, and Moammar Gadhafi’s ragtag forces were easily routed by NATO.
Assad and his cronies, on the other hand, have proven that they will resort to whatever means necessary to crush the pro-democracy movement, including the torture of young children. Syrian officials have also shown that they are immune to reason. They are driven by paranoia and self-preservation, and Assad will do anything, including jailing innocent journalists and civilians, to “prove” that the protests are the work of foreign powers and terrorist gangs.
Abobakr Radwan, whose son was jailed and forced to confess on TV for taking pictures of a protest with his phone, said that when he pleaded for his son’s release, the Syrian officials he met with were “poker-face people” who “showed no emotions.” Nadim Houry, a Lebanon-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the government was living in a fantasy world: “This is a paranoid regime that is just trying to concoct some sort of crazy conspiracy theory.”
There’s little chance, then, that Western officials will be able to convince Assad to step down, or that the regime will earnestly listen to the concerns of opposition activists. Assad said early on that his government would lift the decades-old emergency law that has allowed the regime to repress dissent, only to go back on his word. And he’s breached a pledge to the Arab League to curtail the crackdown, ordering his soldiers to continue shooting civilians.
The major hurdle in Syria is the high level of organization and discipline in the military. Unlike in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where high-level defections helped turned the tide and bolster the opposition, there have been only minor defections among Syrian soldiers, even as they’ve been ordered to cross new thresholds of ruthlessness. “The regime’s militaries remain surprisingly coherent,” said Wayne White, a former State Department senior official.
“Though Syrian forces are operating under considerable strain in trying to suppress demonstrations across the country, it appears that — at least in the near term — the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad will continue to hold as the fractured opposition will be unable to find the level of external support it needs to overpower the government,” Stratfor, the global intelligence firm, wrote in a report assessing the coherence of the Syrian military this week.
The question, then, is what the United States and other major powers can do, if anything, to aid the Syrian opposition and pry Assad from of power. Policymakers, for their part, don’t seem to have many answers. There is virtually no appetite among the major powers or Arab leaders for another military intervention. A United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the violence was vetoed in October by China and Russia.
The duty to act, then, may fall to Syria’s Arab neighbors, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of which have been supportive of the opposition movement. Turkey is in an especially convenient position to act, in that it shares a border with Syria and has sheltered many refugees from the crackdown. There have been rumors, for example, that Turkey might establish a “military buffer zone” along the border with Syria, to help arm and organize the opposition.
The Arab League is also set to meet again this week to discuss the situation in Syria, and the Assad regime’s apparent violation of the ceasefire agreement. More than 60 people are reported to have been killed since Assad publicly agreed to ease the crackdown. Just this week, eight protesters were shot dead in Damascus. If the Arab League takes more forceful action, it could ease the path to a new round of sanctions by Western powers, or other punitive actions.
Still, the Assad regime plans to intensify its crackdown, constructing “an elaborate surveillance network to track the communications and activities of its citizens,” according to Human Rights Watch. And yet, even that has not deterred the protesters. “Despite the government’s ongoing killings and torture, the protests have continued to escalate throughout the country,” McFarland wrote in her testimony, “and they are unlikely to go away anytime soon.”