NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

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In this image made on a mobile phone, Syrian troops are seen on the outskirts of the city of Homs.
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Syrian President Bashar Assad is facing an unprecedented challenge to his 11-year rule.
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Syrian President Bashar Assad has employed tanks, snipers and gunships in an attempt to crush the five-month uprising.

Assad Continues Crackdown amid Internal and International Pressure

Five months into the massive uprising in Syria, President Bashar Assad is facing ever-increasing pressure both inside the country and from the international community. Assad’s brutal response to the unrest, using tanks and heavy artillery to assault entire cities, has failed to rein in the opposition to his 11-year rule. At the same time, the voices of condemnation around the world grow louder by the day. Last week, President Obama and the leaders of the U.K., France and Germany made their first explicit call for Assad to step down.

Increasingly Brutal Measures

The popular protests against the Assad regime, which began in mid-March in the southern city of Daraa, were immediately met with a violent response. Rather than deterring protestors, however, the use of live fire and mass arrests merely fueled the anger and opposition to Assad. As the rallies grew in size and spread throughout Syria, security forces resorted to increasingly brutal measures in an attempt to quell the unrest.

The Syrian army began laying siege to numerous cities in May—including the provincial capitals of Homs, Hama and Latakia—moving in snipers, tanks and artillery and shutting off water and electricity. Reports of widespread torture emerged, the most notorious of which is that of 13-year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, arrested in Daraa. After Al-Khateeb’s body was returned to his family with burn marks and numerous injuries, his name became a rallying cry for protesters. On May 31, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton marked the boy’s death as a turning point in the Syrian uprising, stating that it “symbolizes for many Syrians ... the total collapse of any effort by the Syrian government to work with and listen to their own people.”

The Muslim month of Ramadan, starting at the end of July, has seen the worst of the violence. Military forces have continued raiding civilian centers, killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands more. In the port city of Latakia, gunboats have joined the crackdown, firing heavy machine guns into waterfront neighborhoods. A focal point of the crackdown has been the city of Hama, also the site of a massacre by Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, in 1982. Some 25,000 people were killed that year, when the Syrian army stormed the city in order to quell an Islamist revolt.

The Syrian regime has made various attempts to divert world attention from the unrest. In early June, it orchestrated raids by Palestinian refugees on the Golan Heights border with Israel. A month later, pro-government protestors attacked the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus. This incident—in the heart of Syria’s capital city—could not have occurred without the consent of the regime.

Assad has turned to Iran, his only remaining ally in the region, for help in crushing the uprising. In addition to training and equipping the Syrian security forces, the Islamic Republic has reportedly deployed snipers to aid the Assad regime. Its leaders have condemned the actions of the Syrian protestors, claiming that they are American agents.

As of this writing, the U.N. estimates that at least 2,000 people have been killed in the uprising and that thousands were missing or detained.

Global Rebuke

The international community allowed President Assad time to heed the demands for reforms and greater political freedoms, as he had promised to do in three speeches given during the past five months. However, patience with the Syrian regime seems to have run out in much of the world.

In addition to condemning the violence committed by Syrian security forces, the United States and E.U. imposed sanctions in May on those involved in the violent crackdown, including Assad and senior members of his government. On August 10, the United States widened the sanctions to include Syria’s largest commercial bank and its largest telecommunications company.

In a presidential statement issued on August 3, the U.N. Security Council also condemned “the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities.” “This is an important and strong step. It was long overdue. But we were finally able to speak with one voice condemning … the abhorrent and crazy violence perpetrated against civilians by the Syrian government,” said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Arab states soon joined the chorus of voices denouncing the Assad regime’s response to the unrest. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has called the events in Syria “unacceptable,” urging Syria to “stop the killing machine and the bloodshed ... before it is too late.” He has also recalled the Saudi ambassador from Damascus, as have Bahrain, Kuwait and Tunisia.

Even Turkey, a close ally of Syria until the recent unrest, has reached a breaking point in its relationship with the current regime. “This is our final word to the Syrian authorities: Our first expectation is that these operations stop immediately and unconditionally,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said last week. “If the operations do not end, there would be nothing more to discuss about steps that would be taken.”

The most recent escalation in the pressure on Assad came on August 18, when President Obama called on him to resign. “We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” the president said in a written statement. “He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” The administration also announced fresh sanctions, which prohibit imports of Syrian oil, bar U.S. citizens from having any business dealings with the Syrian government and freeze the assets of several oil and gas companies that operate in Syria.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany followed Obama’s lead, issuing a joint statement that urges Assad “to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria.”

Assad is also facing renewed pressure from the United Nations. A U.N. human rights panel in Geneva recommended last week that the U.N. Security Council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for prosecution of alleged crimes against humanity. “The mission found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity,” said the U.N. report.

Continued civil unrest, mounting economic problems and diplomatic isolation have created an unprecedented challenge for the 41-year rule of the Assad clan in Syria. Whether the regime can survive the current crisis remains to be seen. BACK TO TOP