There have been 300 days of protest against the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. They have made no dent in the government’s resolve. Even the presence of an Arab League observer group has had no impact on Damascus’s readiness to bring all its firepower to bear against civilian protestors. The most recent developments suggest that the situation will further deteriorate. All parties to this mess are pretending the truth is other than what it plainly is: A government is committing crimes against its people.
Sporadic protests began in Syria almost exactly a year ago, but they only became mass demonstrations in March. As the Arab Spring spread across the region, Syrian protestors seized the initiative thinking that their time had come as well, and the uprising took on a truly national character. They demanded more rights and the institution of genuine democracy in their country.
In response, the Syrian government made several concessions, including the lifting of the emergency law that had been in force for nearly five decades that permitted the suspension of the constitution. In a national address, Mr. Assad promised “national dialogue” that would include movement toward reform, parliamentary elections, and greater freedoms. Later that summer, a draft law was introduced in parliament that would liberalize politics by allowing more political parties.
While calling for reform, Mr. Assad would at the same time dismiss protestors as terrorists, Western lackeys or Islamic revolutionaries. The government also stepped up efforts to end the demonstrations by force. Cities in which large protests occurred were subject to virtual sieges. The military attacked protestors and tried to end demonstrations by force with tanks, artillery and snipers. It is estimated that more than 6,200 people have been killed during the uprising — with Western media banned from the country, accurate figures are hard to come by.
In a remarkable development, the Arab League has tried to take a stand against the abuses. The organization announced in November that it had reached agreement with Damascus on a deal that included a complete halt to violence, the release of prisoners, removing the military presence from cities and residential areas, and allowing the Arab League and media access to report on the situation.
The organization then upped the ante by voting to suspend Syria’s membership if the government did not halt violence against civilians. In December the group dispatched a group of observers to monitor the situation. It is a chilling indicator of Mr. Assad’s confidence that he did not even try to hide the situation from the observer group.
The monitors witnessed the suffering of civilians. In some cases, troops were redeployed but not actually removed from cities as stipulated; in others, they did not even make an effort to move. One member of the group complained that military equipment remained in mosques despite pleas that it be removed. Violence continued unchecked; one UN official told the UN Security Council that Syria had accelerated the killing of protesters after the Arab monitors had arrived.
It should come as no surprise that a member of the monitoring group resigned earlier this month, dismissing the mission as “a farce.” Calling the government response “shameful,” he accused the Syrian government of killing its own supporters “to convince the Arab monitors that they are doing their job duly, and gain their sympathy.” He said the monitors were “giving the regime further opportunity for more killing.” In perhaps the most damning remark, he concluded that “The regime isn’t committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people.”
In response, Mr. Assad has given two speeches. After going on television for the first time since last summer, he followed that with his first public appearance since March, at which he addressed a crowd in Damascus with his wife and children — a clear attempt to squelch rumors that they had left the country — and vowed that the government would crush the uprising, which he characterized again as a foreign conspiracy.
That promise would seem to anticipate yet more violence, not only by the government but by the opposition as well. As the demonstrations have continued, growing numbers of soldiers have left the government, taking their weapons and their skills with them. Many have joined the “Free Syrian Army”: its ranks are estimated to number from 1,000 to more than 25,000 troops. If they feel the government has given up on compromise, they are likely to become hard line. A full-scale civil war is possible.
The options available to other governments are limited. Western intervention as occurred in Libya is highly unlikely. Instead, the primary burden should be borne by other Arab governments. They should send an unmistakable message to Damascus that compromise is the only course. They should continue the suspension of Damascus from the Arab League and step up pressure on the regime; they should be leading the international movement to censure the Assad government. They should also signal the governments that have historically supported the Syrian government — Iran and Russia, in particular — that they too should stay out.
The likely alternative is yet more violence, perhaps even another bloodbath.