Syrian anti-government protesters hold up loafs of bread as they protest in the northern Syrian port and oil terminal of Banias, on May 3, 2011
In an attempt to stifle growing dissent, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has besieged several restless cities, sent in tanks, stormed mosques, arrested activists and assaulted civilians and their property. After weeks of violence, the regime claimed that the uprising had been subdued, especially in the town of Dara’a. Yet despite the regime claiming victory, protests do not seem to be going away. What has decreased, it seems, are images of rallies streaming from Syria. The regime might have succeeded in killing or detaining most messengers in the hope that once Syria's protests are out of international sight, they will also be out of mind.
“I hope we are witnessing the end of the story,” Syrian presidential advisor Buthaina Shaaban told The New York times. “I think now we’ve passed the most dangerous moment. I hope so, I think so,” she said. “We think these people are a combination of fundamentalists, extremists, smugglers, people who are ex-convicts and are being used to make trouble,” she added, echoing earlier statements from both President Assad and Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa—on the end of military operations in the southern and restless town of Dara’a.
But Turkish Prime Minsiter Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of Assad's closest allies, thinks otherwise. Erdogan told Turkish Channel 7 that more than 1,000 unarmed civilians have been killed in Syria. "They tell us that armed people killed five soldiers and that seven policemen were killed," said Erdogan. "Our information in this regard is completely different... it is wrong for a regime to shoot its own people. There are no armed groups confronting the regime."
So it seems that even Assad's friend, Erdogan, does not buy Assad's claims of fighting an armed insurgency launched by "fundamentalists, extremists, smugglers," and "ex-convicts." What victory did the Syrian regime exactly score? And if there were no armed insurgents in Syria, whom did the tanks go after?
Analysts argue that tanks were intended as a show of force that would keep protesters off the streets, just like when Egypt's Hosni Mubarak sent his F-16s to buzz demonstrators in Tahrir Square. However, flexing a muscle without the will to go all the way, which might include wholesale massacres, is a risky business. If, after the tanks have rolled out of Dara’a, unrest continues, it will be proven that there was no insurgency. Unrest will be seen for what it is: A peaceful uprising against the Assad regime.
Erdogan and world politicians realize that the solution to Syria's unrest can only come through reform and never through coercion or repression. When protesters first took to the streets, Erdogan and others took Assad's side on the presumption that Assad would choose reform. But Assad apparently chose violence hoping that if the uprising disappears, there will be no need for reform.
Hence, Assad and his officials have been keen, not only to finish the Syrian uprising fast, but to show the world that it ended. At first, the regime invited a UN commission to visit the town of Dara’a to show normal life. The commission was later barred access to Dara’a. This change of mind shows that Dara’a could not be forced back into "normal" by the time the UN had arrived in Syria. As a fallback plan, the regime reached out to the New York Times and used it as a platform to show that Dara’a, and the rest of Syria, had gone back to "normal," even though officials had no evidence—allowing reporters to tour the restless cities, to substantiate their claim of normalcy.
“They want to finish everything this week,” a Syrian human rights activist told The New York Times. “No one in the regime has a clear policy. They cannot keep this strategy for a long time," he said.
In fact, Assad's policy has been to do what it takes to turn down the volume surrounding the uprising. Along these lines Assad lifted emergency laws that had been in effect since 1963. But despite the end of emergency, tanks were still cruising the streets of several cities while Syrians were being arrested en masse, without warrants or subsequent fair trial. Further signs that Assad's only goal was to end the embarrassing rallies, rather than embarking on true reform, came during his remarks before his new ministers when he said that with the formation of a new cabinet, protests would not be tolerated anymore.
Despite all the regime's efforts, the rallies have continued, week after week. Shaaban's usage of the phrase "I hope so" shows that the Assad regime is unsure whether the Syrians were cowed enough to stay off the streets. In the past, whenever the regime announced the end of the uprising, Syrians surprised their government by taking to the streets, especially on Fridays. There is no reason to believe that the coming Fridays will be different, unless the regime can replicate in Syrian cities what it did in Dara’a: Place a sniper on top of every building and impose a watertight curfew.
The Assad regime, however, does not look to have the resources to guard every Syrian. So at least for now, the regime is making sure to kill the messengers. Perhaps if the international vibe about Syria recedes, Assad can take his time in taming the Syrians, one city after another, at his own pace. And perhaps with international eyes off Syria, he can get away with more repression and even harsher measures.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain - Contributing Editor