As the violence inside Syria intensifies, governments in the region and beyond are turning against an increasingly beleaguered president
THE city of Homs, the third-biggest in Syria, is close to civil war. Sitting astride a sectarian fault-line between the city’s mainly Sunni centre and an area to the north-west dominated by members of the Alawite faith, a minority Muslim sect whose followers form the core of Bashar Assad’s regime, it is now the hub of the conflict. In the past fortnight, more than 100 people in the city are reported to have been killed. The security forces are struggling to regain control.
Between Homs and Idlib in the north-west, Mr Assad’s men, despite an increasing proliferation of checkpoints, are facing tougher opposition than ever before. After months of mainly peaceful protests, Hama, Syria’s fourth city, to the north of Homs, is becoming more violent too. Across the country, the scale of bloodshed has increased, as a growing number of defectors from the army, along with civilians who have been acquiring weapons in greater numbers, have joined the fray. On November 16th army defectors attacked an intelligence base in a Damascus suburb. The nationwide death rate in the past fortnight may, say human-rights monitors, have doubled, with nearly 400 people perishing so far this month.
- »The tide turns against Bashar Assad
- Left v right
- The right to be hidden
- Winner takes all
- He’ll be back
- Rumours of war
Thanks to military conscription, most male Syrians have a basic knowledge of firearms. Many young men who were in university a few months ago are now toting guns. “The number of defectors involved is unclear,” says an activist in Homs. “But we’re seeing street fighting.”
On the eastern side of the country, in Deir ez-Zor, the regime is “lucky if it goes a day without losing a handful of security men,” says a resident. In Deraa, on Syria’s southern rim, where the revolt first erupted in March, clashes between loyal soldiers and defectors have become common. “We don’t want a war,” says a local sheikh. “But it seems inevitable.”
Though central Damascus and Aleppo, the second city, have yet to witness violence on the scale of Homs and Hama, dissent is growing there too. Most notably, big businessmen who had hitherto sided with the regime have been taking their assets abroad and vacillating in their support for Mr Assad, whose family have long cultivated an effective culture of crony capitalism. Even among Christians and Alawites, whose communities each make up around a tenth of the populace and who have feared Mr Assad’s replacement by a Sunni and perhaps Islamist regime, loyalty to him may be less assured than before.
The government still manages to orchestrate big rallies in support of the regime in Damascus and Aleppo, but many of those who attend do so under duress; universities and public institutions are closed to ensure that people have no excuse to stay away. Several people who broke off into anti-regime displays were shot dead on November 13th.
Even as Mr Assad struggles to contain the waves of protest, the diplomatic tide is running sharply against him. On November 2nd he accepted a set of proposals laid out by the 22-country Arab League, including a promise to withdraw his security forces from the cities, to release political prisoners (said to number between 10,000 and 20,000), to let in some 500 diplomatic monitors along with the foreign media that had hitherto been barred, and to engage the opposition in talks that would lead eventually to multiparty elections. Mr Assad freed several hundred prisoners but entirely flouted the rest of the deal, thereby prompting the league, on November 12th, to suspend Syria from membership. Four days later, in Morocco, the league said it would impose sanctions if Mr Assad did not relent within three days.
These are devastating blows to Mr Assad and his regime. He must have been stunned by the near-unanimity of the vote on November 12th. Only little Lebanon, which is still in Syria’s shadow, and turbulent Yemen voted to keep him in. And Lebanon’s support may be increasingly tepid. Its government faces internal pressure from an influential banking sector that fears Western sanctions as well as from a reinvigorated anti-Syrian opposition. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist faction long headquartered in Damascus, has also quietly distanced itself from Mr Assad.
Algeria and Sudan, usually on the side of repression, voted against him. Shia-led Iraq, an important neighbour to the east, which has feared the onset of a Sunni regime to replace Mr Assad’s Alawites, abstained. Jordan’s King Abdullah, another influential neighbour, who had hitherto been cautiously neutral, bluntly called for Mr Assad to go. Saudi Arabia, the beefiest member of the six-country Gulf Co-operation Council, long ago turned against him.
Of the other regional heavyweights, Turkey, the neighbour with the biggest punch, has been fiercest in calling for Syria’s regime to reform or die. Its government hosts the main political opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), and harbours the leaders of the Free Syrian Army, a burgeoning group of defecting soldiers. More recently Turkey has threatened to cut off electricity to northern Syria.
Tensions between Syria’s internal and external opposition inevitably persist, though the SNC is doing quite well in maintaining a broad front that includes a strong component of Muslim Brothers as well as secular liberals. Some council members may be drawing premature hope from Libya’s experience, in the unwise expectation that the West and the UN may impose a no-fly zone over Syria and invoke a “responsibility to protect” civilians. Despite the Arab League’s increasingly robust demands that Mr Assad should engage in a proper dialogue, he still seems unlikely to do so. But his room for manoeuvre is a lot more limited than it was even a month ago.