Middle East

Syria unrest: Deadlock as pressure builds

Deserted street in Hama, photographed during a government-organised tour (7 August 2011)
Image caption The assault on Hama seems to have galvanised international opinion

After nearly five months of uprising and carnage in Syria, nobody really knows whether President Bashar al-Assad and his Baathist regime will still be in power a year hence.

Analysts use phrases like "war of attrition" or "immovable object meeting irresistible force" to describe the stalemate between a popular revolt that will not go away, and a regime that seems determined to cling to power at any cost.

Both may have gone beyond the point of no return on the courses they have adopted.

If the regime were to heed calls to withdraw its army and security forces from the fray, it is clear that large parts of the country could spin out of control.

And if the rebels were to call off their uprising in the hope of securing political gains, they would risk being left with nothing but further severe repression.

Too much blood has been spilled for the clock to be turned back.

Losing friends

Despite concerted and ruthless efforts, the regime has not been able to stamp out the flames of defiance in almost any part of the country - including in the birthplace of the uprising in and around Deraa in the far south.

But neither have the rebels been able to push their revolt to tipping-point by having it engulf the two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, and getting hundreds of thousands, or even millions, onto the streets, rather than tens of thousands or less as at present.

The basic deadlock does not, however, mean that the situation is static.

Image caption Neither activists in Syria nor the outside world take the proposals of reform and dialogue seriously

Pressure is clearly building up, the longer the conflict grinds on.

The army and security forces' latest operations, in the central city of Hama and Deir al-Zour in the east, both seem to have triggered significant changes in international and regional diplomacy and politics over Syria.

Hama has strong international resonance because of the massacre of many thousands there when an Islamist uprising was brutally suppressed in 1982.

The latest assault on Hama, which began on 31 July, seems to have galvanised international opinion sufficiently to produce, within three days, the first UN Security Council statement condemning the state violence against civilians.

Traditional friends of Syria, such as the Russians and Chinese, went along with the statement, and other council members (Brazil, South Africa and India) also dropped their reservations and backed a statement that had taken months of diplomatic haggling.

Russian support for the statement seemed to reflect a real shift in position in Moscow, where President Dmitry Medvedev said that if President Assad did not bring about serious changes quickly, he would face "a sad fate".

The US position also seemed to harden somewhat, although the uncertainty of what might follow the current Syrian regime has led Washington to continue to hedge its bets by not entirely excluding a role for President Assad in a transitional future.

But a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and some US-based Syrian opposition figures was a clear signal to Damascus that other ways forward were being actively explored.

Sunni disapproval

The move a week after Hama against Deir al-Zour, a heavily tribal area, may have been the last straw that broke Saudi patience over the unrelenting crackdown on an uprising largely involving the poorer sections of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.

Image caption Saudi Arabia sees itself as the regional patrons and protectors of the Sunnis

The following day saw King Abdullah take the unusual step of unleashing a powerful admonitory blast on al-Arabiya TV, announcing that Riyadh was recalling its ambassador to signal its displeasure with Damascus.

He warned that Syria would descend into chaos if it did not enact swift and meaningful reforms.

The Saudi move was all the more significant given the irony that just a year and one week earlier, King Abdullah visited President Assad in Damascus before the two men made an unprecedented joint trip to Beirut to reinforce a Saudi-Syrian initiative easing tensions between Sunnis and Shia in Lebanon.

The Saudis see themselves as the regional patrons and protectors of the Sunnis, and the ongoing and worsening bloodletting in Syria apparently made that consideration override King Abdullah's prior entente with President Assad.

Activists on the ground in Syria were clearly heartened by the Saudi move, and staged demonstrations of gratitude, with tribal elements to the fore.

With Bahrain and Kuwait following suit and pulling ambassadors out of Damascus, the Arab League voicing similar concerns, and neighbouring Turkey weighing in to warn that time and patience were running out, the whole Sunni world seemed to be mobilising in disapproval of the suppression of Syria's Sunni community by its minority Alawite-dominated government.

The fear underlying all this is that Syria may be sliding inexorably into a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Alawites that would aggravate confessional fault-lines running through the region, especially in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq.

Internal triggers

The basic deadlock and bloody repression could continue for a long time despite all the diplomatic pressure.

But if the internal pressure keeps rising, change could also come about out of the blue, from several possible sources. They include:

  • Splits in the military: So far, despite persistent reports of defections by individuals or small groups of soldiers on the ground, there has been no evidence of major divisions involving whole units. But it stands to reason that the longer the repression goes on, the more tensions will mount within an institution where the rank and file are necessarily Sunni, but the levers of power in Alawite hands. The announcement on Monday that Defence Minister Ali Habib had been replaced prompted rumours that he had opposed the attack on Hama, or even that he had tried to stage a coup, and also that he had been killed.
  • The economy: It is being steadily degraded as the crisis goes on and many businesses feel the pinch. Substantial sections of the population - the Sunni middle classes, the merchants, and minorities such as the Christians - have generally supported the regime because they could benefit from the stability it conferred. But if the economy worsens and stability collapses, they may agree it is time for a change.
  • The Alawite community: If sectarian tensions keep rising, it is not out of the question that President Assad's own Alawite community might turn against him rather than risk annihilation for the sake of one rapacious clan. But given the excesses of the regime and the mainly-Alawite shabiha militia, it may be too late for that.

The regime has so far reacted to all the outside pressure by retorting that the trouble is caused by "armed terrorist gangs", and that the "comprehensive reform programme" launched by President Assad is serious but needs more time.

But given what is happening on the ground, neither activists in Syria nor the outside world take the reform and dialogue proposals seriously.

One of the regime's early moves was to scrap existing state of emergency laws which gave carte blanche to repression and abuses, but that has made no difference at all.

Despite the hardening international position on Syria, external intervention as in Libya has been ruled out from the beginning and is no more likely now, for many reasons.

But there are lesser ways in which the outside world can tighten the pressure on the regime, through economic moves and support for the opposition.

That may embolden the activists on the ground. In the end, the outcome will be up to them and the rest of the Syrian people.