The situation in Syria cannot continue. The besieged government in Damascus is escalating the war against its citizens, and they do not appear to be intimidated. Significantly, many of the regime’s former friends have broken ranks and recognize it for the pariah state that it deserves to be called.
A few governments continue to support President Bashar Assad, but they cannot be said to represent the mainstream of thought in the Middle East. It is not clear whether Mr. Assad is capable of reforming his country politics, but he must stop pretending to embrace reform while sending in the troops to kill members of the opposition.
Syria has experienced protests since the beginning of this year, when a demonstrator set himself on fire, emulating the act that launched the movement that overthrew Tunisian autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
By February, mass protests, both organized and spontaneous, were occurring across the country. On March 15, thousands joined simultaneous demonstrations around Syria on the “Day of Rage,” which were followed three days later by even larger protests on the “Day of Dignity.”
A week later, a reported 100,000 people took to the streets; it is charged that 20 people were killed by security forces trying to suppress the movement.
As the protests continued, the government stepped up its efforts to regain control. By April, the cities of Daraa and Douma were under siege by security forces, which used heavy artillery, including tanks and snipers to put down the protests. Again, an estimated two dozen people were killed and more than 500 were arrested. Those actions sparked international criticism and calls for sanctions against the Syrian government. They prompted more than 230 members of the ruling Baath party to leave the party in protest.
The reinforced military action did not deter the demonstrators. Protests continued to spread, as did the government crackdown in response.
In June, Mr. Assad denounced the demonstrators as “vandals” and “radicals” who were led by “foreign conspirators.” At the same time, however, he conceded that some of their grievances were legitimate and said he would move forward with reform efforts. The lack of detail in those concessions — he failed to identify who he would work with to craft the changes and provided no timeline — suggested he was not serious.
The demonstrations grew to encompass virtually every major urban area in Syria — as has the brutality of the government’s response. Human rights groups say the death toll has reached 1,700 civilians. The government says 500 soldiers and police have lost their lives.
This week, the military opened fire on low-income districts in the port city of Latakia. The brutal assault, which included tank fire, has claimed nearly 40 lives and forced as many as 10,000 Palestinian refugees from their homes. One senior Palestinian official called the attack a “crime against humanity.”
In the past, such criticism of an Arab leader by a Palestinian official would have been unheard of. Today, it is part of a growing chorus of condemnation of the Syrian government.
Turkey, a neighbor and former close ally of the Assad government, has said that attacks against civilians are unacceptable and warned that military operations against civilians “must end immediately and unconditionally.”
Equally important is Saudi Arabia’s condemnation. The kingdom has pulled its ambassador from Syria while demanding that the government put an “end to the killing machine.” This marks a shift for Riyadh, which supported its neighbor Bahrain when it faced public protests and even sent in military forces to help restore order.
The Saudi calculus is based on both religious — many of the victims of the military’s assault are low-income Sunnis, co-religionists — and regional concerns.
Syria is a close ally of Iran and an end to the Assad regime would increase Tehran’s isolation within the region. For that reason, Iran has been one of Mr. Assad’s most fervent allies in recent weeks.
For his part, Mr. Assad is unbowed. He insists that the army will “not relent in pursuing terrorist groups.” But pressure will only increase.
The European Union and the United States have put sanctions in place against Mr. Assad and other senior government officials. The United Nations Human Rights Council will convene an emergency session next week to take up the regime’s brutality.
On Wednesday, Mr. Assad told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon by telephone that the Syrian military had stopped its attacks on citizens. U.N. officials could not immediately confirm Mr. Assad’s claim.
Ultimately, the key to change is pressure from Middle Eastern governments. Their determination to block any reform — understanding that a single crack in their facade could undermine them all — has been the biggest obstacle to change in the region.
Now, however, some of them recognize that a democratic wave is washing over the region and an era has ended. They are scrambling to catch up, both to preserve themselves and maximize their influence in the new political landscape that is emerging.
But these governments should not delude themselves into thinking that they can manipulate these mass movements. They along with other governments should be working to get on the right side of history.
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