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Assad emulates his father in Syria’s uprising

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A chip off the old block.

Like his late father, Hafez, Bashar nAssad relies on unrestrained brutal force to maintain his grip on power in Syria.

Thirty years ago, Hafez crushed a rebellion in Hama spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood. Shelling entire neighbourhoods indiscriminately, Syrian forces killed at least 10,000 residents in a scorched earth operation. When the dust had cleared, Thomas Friedman, a New York Times foreign correspondent, was permitted to visit Hama. Surveying the bleak ruins, he wrote, “It was stunning. Whole swaths of buildings had been destroyed and then professionally steamrolled into parking lots the size of football fields.”

Three decades on, Bashar is using coarse military means as well to squelch an insurrection. This revolt, stretching from Daraa in the south to Idlib in the north, erupted a year ago this month. Nationwide in scope, it has drawn in thousands of defectors from the army, the single most important institution in this ethnically fragmented country.

Last week, the focus of the uprising was on Homs, which has been bombarded every day for the past 30 days. “The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense,” observed Marie Colvin, an American reporter who was killed by the shelling on Feb. 22. “The inhabitants are living in terror.”

Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has condemned the siege of Homs. Charging Assad’s regime with having deployed tanks, rockets, artillery and mortars to pummel Homs, she accused the Syrian army of firing on densely populated neighbourhoods in “an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas.”

On the day Colvin was cut down, a UN panel released a damning report concluding that Syria has committed crimes against humanity.  Last week, Pillay said Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Assad, an ophthalmologist who succeeded his father following his sudden death in 2000, has been unrepentant and myopic, claiming the uprising is the work of “outsiders” and “terrorists” trying to destabilize Syria. Having pledged to use “an iron hand” to subdue his enemies, he has declared, “We will defeat the conspiracy without any doubt.”

Assad’s dogged determination to cling to power after the deaths of more than 7,000 Syrians is a function of the so-called Arab Spring, during which authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen like himself have been swept away. A member of the minority Alawite sect, he rightly fears that he, his family and supporters will be subjected to bloody retribution by the majority Sunnis should he give in to popular demands for real sweeping change.

Inspired by the rebellions convulsing the Arab world, the long-suffering Syrian people awoke from their lethargy in March 2011, demanding democracy and an end to the culture of cronyism, corruption and autocracy. By doing so, Syrians challenged the legitimacy of the Assad family dynasty and of the secular Baath party, which has ruled, and oppressed, Syria for almost 50 years.

Assad launched his political career as a self-styled reformer, promising to open up Syrian society. But apart from bringing in economic reforms, which were largely of benefit to a tiny self-serving elite close to the regime, Assad’s talk of democratizing Syria was merely rhetoric.

After the current uprising broke out, Assad passed a series of cosmetic decrees. He ended the 48-year state of emergency, issued an amnesty for political prisoners and gave Kurds citizenship. He also increased the salaries of civil servants, guaranteed university graduates jobs, raised food subsidies and cut the price of fuel.

On Feb. 26, in Assad’s latest sop to the masses, he permitted Syrians to vote in a referendum for a new constitution. Under the new rules, multiple political parties could be established, the Baath party monopoly would end and the president would be limited to two seven-year terms.

The referendum, which was held as Syrian forces bombarded Homs and killed 50 additional civilians, was dismissed as a sham. The Syrian National Council, the umbrella organization of the opposition, declared that reforms were meaningless as long as Assad continued to resort to repression to quell the revolt. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, noting that Assad would be able to serve for 14 more years, described the referendum as “phony.”

Assad’s crude repressive methods have pushed Syria to the brink of civil war and transformed a non-violent uprising into an increasingly violent and sectarian one. Liberal Syrians who had hoped that the regime was capable of reforming itself, if only for the sake of survival, have been bitterly disillusioned.

“Some of us [believed] that… President Assad might, under the right circumstances, deliver on his promise to reform the system from within,” Hind Aboud Kabawat, an opposition figure living in Canada, has written.

These misplaced and dashed hopes have spawned a revolt that has become the bloodiest episode of the Arab Spring.

The Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the rebellion, has taken a lead role in waging war on Assad’s regime. Having recruited as many as 40,000 army defectors, it attacks military convoys and sites and assassinates high-ranking government officials and army officers. Of late, Sunni extremists linked to Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq have joined the fray, having reportedly been responsible for two recent bombings in Damascus and one bombing in Aleppo, cities that have generally stood aloof from the fighting.

Assad combats them from a position of considerable strength: the Sunni merchant class and Syria’s security forces remain loyal and the Syrian opposition is divided along ethnic and ideological lines.

Assad can also count on a few allies.

Iran, Syria’s longtime strategic partner, has provided financial and logistical support and a steady flow of weapons. Hezbollah, a Syrian client, has rallied behind him. Russia and China have vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions critical of Syria and continue to ship arms to Damascus.

Yet Assad faces pressure from all sides. The UN General Assembly has urged him to step down. The Arab League, the United States, Canada and the European Union have imposed sanctions. Arab countries from Egypt to Saudi Arabia have recalled their respective ambassadors. Turkey, once an ally and key trading partner, has turned against him. Hamas, critical of the harsh crackdown, has broken ranks with Assad.

Israel has shed no tears over Assad’s predicament and waits for a new order in Damascus to downgrade Iran’s status in Syria. Yet Israel fears that his demise may heighten tensions on its northern border, which has been relatively quiet since the 1974 disengagement agreement with Syria.

Major powers such as the United States and Britain have renounced an intention to intervene militarily in Syria, as they did in Libya last year. But with the revolt growing exponentially, they may yet send weapons and munitions to Syrian rebels.

This column will appear in the March 8 issue of The CJN

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