Syrian turmoil: No end in sight


NOW in its third month, Syria’s uprising shows no sign of abating. Indeed, though the weekly death toll goes up and down, the strife is worsening. On Friday May 27th, 12 people are known to have died—a lower number than on most previous Fridays.

But the ensuing violence was as intense as ever. The army attacked two restive tribal towns, Telbiseh and Rastan, that lie just north of Syria’s third city, Homs, which has also been in the line of fire. Tanks are reported to have shelled Rastan. At least 40 people have been killed and scores arrested. The main road north to Aleppo, Syria’s second city, was closed and communications cut.

The unrest covers just about the whole country. Protesters, growing steadily in number, are becoming more innovative. People in neighbourhoods of Homs have taken to shouting “Allahu akbar!” (“God is great!”) in unison from balconies at night. In Hama, where the president’s father, Hafez Assad, suppressed an uprising in 1982, thousands protested in a square on May 27th. Deir ez-Zor, a tribal city in the north-east, is increasingly restless.

A plethora of torture reports is making people angrier still. The case of a 13-year-old, Hamza al-Khatib, has been widely aired, to general disgust. His body, given back by officials to his parents on May 25th, a month after he was arrested, bore multiple marks of abuse, including bullet holes, signs of electric shock, burns, bruises, a broken neck and castration. The state media said it was all faked but people generally believe the parents. A report by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby, documents summary executions in Deraa, a southern city where the protests began.

Though the protests have been mainly peaceful, armed revolt may be brewing. In tough towns such as Rastan, Telbiseh and Tel Kalakh, where tribal honour is fiercely upheld, more people are responding to the security forces with force. In Rastan protesters threatened to blow up a bridge. In Tel Kalakh, a smuggling border town where guns proliferate, tanks have been hit by rocket-propelled grenades. The government makes much of its own forces’ death toll, said to exceed 100, and cites the violence against them to justify the regime’s crackdown. Armed gangs, many of them adherents to the minority Alawite sect to which the Assad family belongs, are reported to be terrorising rebellious areas.

Alawite villagers near Sunni settlements are said to have been given arms. Alawite army units are in the vanguard of repression. As a result, sectarian tension is up. In fact, the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam that many Muslims do not consider Muslim at all, is split into clans. In February several Alawite sheikhs distanced themselves from the Assads on the website of an Alawite dissident, Wahid Saqr, deriding attempts to stir ethnic and sectarian strife. Syria is also divided by geography and class. Many educated middle-class people in Damascus dismiss the protesters as rural illiterates or religious fanatics. Some approve of the crackdown. A few say that “nothing is going on.”

But most admit that the country is in turmoil. The hectic manner in which the state media seek to portray the situation as normal merely affirms the disarray. The economy is plainly in a mess. Tourism, which accounted for a good 5% of GDP in 2010 and was a key source of foreign currency, has evaporated. Foreign investors have fled. The government is promising more public-sector jobs and bigger subsidies for fuel. Regulations are being laxly enforced in the capital, as security forces and the police are tied up elsewhere and are scared of annoying people in central Damascus, which has been relatively quiet. Hawkers laying their wares on pavements have proliferated. Extra storeys go up overnight without permission.

The president is lying low. Since the trouble began, he has made two big speeches, one on March 30th to a sycophantic parliament, and another more serious effort on April 16th. He is poised to give a third. He has met delegations from affected areas and has conceded that his security forces have “made mistakes”, but has accepted no blame for the deaths, now over 1,000. He has promised an amnesty for prisoners, including members of the still outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Some 10,000 people are said to be jailed.

On June 1st a bigwig in the ruling Baath party said the government wanted a national dialogue, with parameters soon to be announced. But he refused to consider the sort of constitutional changes that could challenge Mr Assad’s autocracy, allow him to be freely opposed in an election or remove the Baath party’s official role as “leader of the state and society”.

Efforts to blame foreigners for the unrest—and Western powers for wanting to restore colonialism—no longer seem to work. Protesters have begun to wave placards denouncing Mr Assad’s ally, Iran, and chanting against Hizbullah, the Lebanese party-cum-militia that is part of an axis with the Iranian and Syrian governments. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has recently spoken up for Mr Assad.

Outsiders have plainly been loth to get entangled. But they are getting edgier about doing nothing. The language of American officials, such as Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, has become sharper. A draft of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown is circulating. Western governments are trying to persuade Russia, which has long backed the Assad regime, and China at least to abstain; the pair would probably veto any move to refer Syria’s leaders to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, in contrast to their treatment of Libya’s leaders. The Arab League, which endorsed NATO’s attack on Muammar Qaddafi, is silently hedging its bets. But the Turks, after cultivating Mr Assad’s friendship, seem to have turned against him.

The consensus among Arabs in the region has been that Mr Assad will survive the ordeal in the short run but lose legitimacy and stoke hatred for a future showdown. But that consensus is becoming less solid. Mr Assad is in a quandary. Should he talk to the opposition or whack it? Either way entails grave risks to his regime.