With the popular uprising in Syria completing its first month, protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime have spread to encompass most Syrian regions and cities, including now the capital, Damascus. On Friday, April 15, crowds from surrounding suburbs swarmed the city, heading downtown to Abbasiyyin Square where the police fired on protesters and closed all roads and entrances leading toward the square.
Now that the protests have hit Damascus, the regime is virtually encircled. Presumably, Bashar and key officials close to him, like his brother Maher, are contemplating when, how, and where to bring enough violence to bear to crush Syria’s Arab Spring.
Maybe it’s already too late for the regime. Some observers are wondering why Assad hasn’t delivered the death blow to the uprising. After all, his father Hafez famously killed upward of 20,000 back in 1982 to quell a Sunni uprising in the city of Hama. It’s worth noting that the residents of Hama have gone to the streets again this time—even though almost everything else has changed.
Three decades ago, it took several weeks before the news of Hafez’s mass murder reached even Beirut. And as rumor of the violence made that short trip just over the nearby Anti-Lebanon mountain range, the massacre acquired a sort of mythical status: What mere mortals would dare take on these legendary butchers who laid waste to a whole town to prove they would do anything to remain in power?
Today it’s different. The advent of cell phones with video capabilities that give virtually everyone the ability to document history makes it far riskier for any regime to fill the streets of a medium-sized Arab city with blood, lest it capture the attention of the international community. To date the Obama administration still seems to be protecting Damascus, regarding it as a central pillar in its Middle East strategy—wedging Syria away from Iran and jump-starting the peace process—but with that kind of bloodshed the White House would be forced to turn on Assad.
Perhaps even more important is the effect that YouTube has on the protesters themselves. Who could have anticipated that the bloodshed captured on video not only would fail to deter the protesters, but rather would help inspire them? Here, it seems, the new social media dovetails perfectly with traditional Arab cultural values.
The protests first erupted in the southern city of Dara, where the regime unleashed its brutality on the opposition. However, these tactics failed to quell the uprising. Indeed, subsequent Fridays brought more people to the streets—as did every funeral procession for murdered victims. Dara is in a tribal region, and each murder of one of its sons incurred another blood debt, and mobilized more of the province’s people against the regime—while it also inspired solidarity rallies in other towns, near Dara and beyond.
It was when the protests broke out in cities along the Mediterranean coast that the Assad clan first knew it was in trouble. Latakia, Tartus, and Baniyas are mixed cities in the Alawite heartland, where the Assad family, also Alawite, makes its home. These towns are mixed, with heavy concentrations of Sunnis. If the bloody repression in predominantly Sunni Dara featured the Alawite-dominated security forces killing Sunnis, the uprising in the coastal region would throw into sharp relief the fact the regime can no longer claim the unquestioned support of its very own heartland. The inability to subdue what is essentially the Alawites’ capital could signal that casting off Alawite dominance is a realistic possibility. For an embattled minoritarian clique, deeply paranoid of encirclement, having the protests spread to and take root in its own backyard presented a critical challenge. A line had to be drawn here, and Assad employed a full array of tactics.
After the Ministry of Interior issued a statement that there would be “no more room for leniency or tolerance,” Assad ordered Baniyas surrounded with tanks, cut off all food, water, and medical supplies to the town, and unleashed his paramilitary thugs, shabbiha, along with the security forces, who assaulted the protesters, killing and wounding many, and rounding up many more.
At the same time, the regime’s propaganda played on the sectarian anxieties of the Alawites as well as those of the Christians, another minority. The regime claimed that in Baniyas a group of Sunni Islamists had declared jihad. As state-owned television showed footage of men dressed in Islamist garb driving around and shooting, security agents posing as scared civilians called in to the station to implore the government to save the city from “terrorists” by sending in the military. The armed forces command issued an ultimatum to the “terrorists” to surrender, or else the army would use “full force.” The echoes of Hama were deliberate. Syrian activists on Twitter were anticipating a major assault by the military. But nothing, no major, Hama-style assault was launched—not yet, anyway.
Maybe it’s because, as some speculate, the army is having a hard time managing its own divisions, sectarian and other. There are stories emerging that army officers have been shot for refusing to fire on civilians. In any case, as the regime tailors its self-defense according to the parameters and mores of the social media age, it will have to find a midway point, both brutal and controlled, manifesting the maximum amount of terror with the minimum amount of exposure.
But what if it can’t? After all, at a certain point a line was crossed, and the Syrian population not only stopped being afraid but instead drew strength and courage from each other. The Syrian uprising is no longer a regional affair, but a national one. Thus, it is driving the regime into a corner where, fighting for its life, it will have no choice but to pull out all the stops. Nonetheless, it appears that in this post-Hama moment, old-fashioned repression might not work.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.