Syrian protests on verge of a paradigm shift?
November 8, 2011
November 8, 2011.
More than 3,500 people have been killed in Syria’s violent suppression of pro-democracy protests, the United Nations said today, as the Ba’athist regime pressed its assault on the city of Homs, an opposition stronghold.
The assault on Homs has effectively killed the credibility of an Arab League peace plan and highlighted the international community’s inability to force a halt a President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown.
"I don’t think anyone in his right mind was expecting Assad to pull his troops out of the streets and allow peaceful protests,” dissident lawyer Walid al-Bunni told Reuters.
The Syrian National Council, an umbrella bloc comprising most opposition factions, today urged the pan-Arab league "to take a strong and effective position against the Syrian regime commensurate with the dangerous development of the situation.” The attack on Homs is a "humanitarian disaster area” in need of "international protection of civilians,” the council said.
Rights activists today accused pro-Syrian proxies of complicity in the abduction of 12 opposition figures who have disappeared in Lebanon over recent weeks.
"Hezbollah and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party have surveyed several Lebanese areas looking for Syrian opposition members, Hezbollah has surveyed Beirut’s southern suburbs where many cases of disappearances have been reported,” said Nabil Halabi, head of the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights:
"We have been informed that during the last three weeks, the Lebanese authorities have arrested four Syrian opposition members, two of them were arrested at Rafik Hariri International airport when they were on their way to Saudi Arabia on suspicion of arms smuggling into Syria,” Halabi said. "One of them is called Mohammad Shaker Bshalah and the second is Ammar al-Adib who was formerly arrested by Hezbollah but later released after [the party] interrogated him for several days.”
The Arab League is holding an emergency meeting in Cairo on Saturday to address Assad’s failure to accept its transition roadmap, which requires talks with the opposition and the withdrawal of tanks from city streets. The opposition SNC wants the bloc to freeze Syria’s membership, impose economic and diplomatic sanctions, and refer allegations of genocide and human rights atrocities to the International Criminal Court.
The council is also pressing for international as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian revolution and people” in an attempt to replicate the strategy of Libya’s rebel opposition.
The opposition rejects dialogue with the regime as long as the crackdown continues.
"We will not negotiate on the blood of casualties or martyrs,” said Burhan Ghalioun (left), the SNC’s head and a native of Homs, in a speech televised by Arab satellite channels.
"The speech, which many activists described as emotional and eloquent, appeared to reflect a push from the group to pose itself as a transitional body that would eventually serve as a transitional government,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
"Syria will have a new judicial, legislative, and executive system which will be held accountable by the people.” Ghalioun said in the speech. "The power of government will be limited, and the people will choose who governs them through the ballot box. Syrians will enjoy the rule of law, where everyone is equal before an independent judiciary, and all Syrians have equal rights to form organizations, political parties, associations, and participate in decision-making,” he said.
Assad has already lost any real legitimacy, said Nadim Shehadi, an analyst at London’s Chatham House foreign policy think-tank, but the international community is effectively maintaining the regime by issuing calls for reform and dialogue.
"The people who are protesting in Syria seem to have crossed the barrier of fear, but the international community hasn’t,” he said. "Lack of even a threat of international intervention is viewed by the authorities as a license to kill.”
The Syrian authorities’ actions in Homs are "absolutely unacceptable” and confirm that it "could no longer be trusted,” said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
"Its acceptance of Arab League plan was followed in the immediate hours by a new round of repression and new massacres,” he said, shortly after meeting with Yemeni Nobel laureate Tawakkul Karman* in Paris. France is trying to increase international pressure on Damascus and strengthen ties with the opposition.
"Syrians on all sides of the political spectrum saw the [Arab League] initiative as a last chance at a political exit,” The Economist notes:
"We need to say ok to it and put the ball in the regime’s court,” says one of the few veteran dissidents left in Damascus. "No-one in the opposition really believes it will work, but if not, we are being left with one scenario only—an armed struggle.”
Many observers suggest that eight months of protests may now be giving way to a more violent phase.
"It looks like we now are on the verge of a paradigm change,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group. "If protesters feel there is no other option, they may resort to weapons, which would blur the lines and reinforce the regime’s narrative, based on labeling the protest movement an insurgency.”
"Without decisive outside moves or the growth of a more powerful insurgency at home, Assad could survive for years, said Joshua Landis, a Syria watcher at the University of Oklahoma, told Reuters:
"Today, the opposition remains weak and the Syrian military has the upper hand. That could change if the opposition begins to construct a real insurgency, if Turkey goes to war against Syria by supporting some sort of insurgency, or if a foreign intervention is launched, such as happened in Libya.”
"None of these possibilities is on the horizon,” he added, arguing that small guerrilla groups might begin to proliferate and harass the Syrian military and state. "If they gain traction, foreign funding and arms, they could transform into a real insurgency over time.”
*Karman’s Women Journalists Without Chains, a Sana’a-based NGO, is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.