From Cold Spell to Maelstrom

When we last spoke, the Syria situation looked grim.

One thousand three hundred government protesters had already died at the hands of the oppressive Ba’ath Party regime headed by Bashar al-Assad. The opposition movement that demanded his downfall was vulnerable and leaderless. The call for democracy had yet to take hold in any major cities. And Hama, the ideological center of the opposition movement, while still relatively untouched by the Assad Regime, lived under the shadow of Syrian tanks on the horizon.

As of July 31, those tanks are now in Hama and, as their turrets turn this one nascent city to rubble, it is clear that the situation has gone from bad to worse. The death toll has skyrocketed to over 1,600 and possibly more. That number rises on a daily basis.

Though the Syria situation has not yet turned into a civil war on the scale of Libya, the growing discontent throughout the country at Assad’s violent methods promises that fighting will escalate. For now, unlike Libya, that fight is one-sided. The opposition has survived on its determination and indomitable will—but this is no match for mobile artillery.

Civil war, however, is a far more likely prospect for Syria than for Egypt or Tunisia, as Syria is far more divided along sectarian lines. Indeed, Syrian politics, similar to those of Iraq, are based on this reality. Assad himself is an Alawite—a Shia sect—whereas three-quarters of his country’s population are Sunni. There is an enormous degree of ideological hostility between the two.

Nothing here should come as a surprise. It is a simple equation; as protests grow in intensity, so too do government efforts to quash them. This all but guarantees bloodshed for the opposition in the coming months, as it continues on the long and precarious road to Assad’s ousting. He will not go without a fight, and the loyalty of his forces, coupled with the material resources at his disposal, indicates that he has the means to continue the fight for quite some time.

If the opposition continues in spite of this (and it will), then there is hope. History does not favor Assad’s position. With every voice suppressed, with every body broken in the name of maintaining control under the guise of order and security, his opponents are strengthened. His tactics have given them credibility in the eyes of moderates throughout his country. Ironically, the more he relies on violence to defend his position, the more he pushes his would-be supporters into the sway of his enemies.

The opposition—an admittedly broad term for a movement with no real organization—has yet to identify or identify with anything resembling a leader. As has been said in the past, this has made the opposition movement all the more difficult for Assad to destroy, with no one figurehead to target or negotiate with.

This is also unfortunate for the opposition itself. With no clear leader to guide the opposition movement or define its vision for a post-Assad Syria, many middle-ground Syrians are reluctant to support it. For the sake of stability, the argument can be made for the Assad regime.

A dictatorship cannot survive indefinitely against the will of everyone—it must support itself on either a broad perception of its necessity, genuine adoration or consistent backing by an entrenched source of power and influence (i.e., the military or the clergy). In the case of Assad, this source of power is a combination of business owners, who have flourished under his administration and the military.

These are powerful allies, and will make the opposition’s fight all the more difficult.

It seems the call for democracy has reached Damascus, the Syrian capital. The outlying villages surrounding the city have been in an uproar for some time already. Within the capital, certain districts have been cordoned by Assad’s security forces. Raids, arrests and tear gas are commonplace. On July 15, live ammunition claimed the lives of 20 people.

Of course, as Damascus remains the cornerstone of Assad’s support base, all this should be viewed as peripheral to the majority opinion within the capital. The dissent is there, and it is growing—enough to warrant the use of live ammunition on at least one occasion. But it is still not enough to unseat this tenacious autocrat.