Bloomberg News

Syrians Protest Alone as U.S., Army Leave Assad Free Hand

June 03, 2011

(Updates with Internet shutdown in sixth paragraph. See EXTRA and MET for more on the Middle East unrest.)

June 3 (Bloomberg) -- Syria’s opposition defied President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces again after prayers today without any sign it’s winning backers at home or abroad who could make the contest less lopsided and stop the killing.

In most Middle Eastern countries that experienced revolts this year, the popular movements that started demonstrations found allies to help sustain or conclude them. In Egypt and Tunisia, army generals sided with protesters against longtime rulers. In Libya, rebels continue their fight to oust Muammar Qaddafi with support from NATO air strikes. Yemen’s Gulf neighbors sought to broker a compromise, with U.S. backing, that would remove President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.

Syrian protesters have found no such recourse. The fragmented opposition to Assad, and the risk his fall may destabilize Lebanon and Israel, has limited the U.S and European response to imposing sanctions. Syria’s security forces -- where key posts are often held by members of the Assad family’s Alawite minority -- are set up to bind political and army leaders together, leaving few gaps for protesters to exploit.

“It will be very difficult to dislodge Assad because the opposition doesn’t have the armed force to confront the army,” said Patrick Seale, a biographer of Bashar’s father, Hafez al- Assad. “European powers still recognize the legitimacy of the regime. They denounce the methods he is using but they are not calling for his overthrow because they are worried about the repercussions.”

Death Toll

Syrian security forces killed more than 60 people in the town of Hama and injured as many 20 people in Deir Al-Zour as thousands demonstrated today after prayers in Hama, Damascus and the province of Idlib, while gunfire was heard also in Nawa in the south, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said by phone from Syria. The central towns of Rastan and Talbiseh are surrounded by tanks and troops, he said.

About two-thirds of Syria’s Internet networks were shut down early today, the Renesys security company, based in Manchester, New Hampshire, said on its website.

Assad’s forces have killed more than 1,100 people and detained more than 10,000 since protests began in mid-March, according to human rights groups. Initial pledges of reform haven’t been repeated in recent weeks as the assault escalated.

The government says Islamists and foreign provocateurs are behind the uprising. State television has shown footage of what it says are arms and ammunition confiscated from opposition groups.

Protesters Unarmed

There have been some reports of armed resistance. Residents of two towns in the central Homs province fought security forces with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the Associated Press reported May 31. Overwhelmingly, though, the protesters are unarmed, according to Merhi and Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights.

The U.S. and European Union have imposed sanctions including travel bans on Assad and other top officials. President Barack Obama said May 19 that Assad should stop the killing and lead a peaceful transition to democracy or “get out of the way.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has ruled out using military force in Syria.

Even with U.S. support, there’s no guarantee the United Nations Security Council mandate for military action in Libya could be replicated. Russia -- which has a veto and abstained in the Libya vote -- opposes intervention in Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

‘Repercussions’ Possible

“It is not in the interests of anyone to send messages to the opposition in Syria or elsewhere that if you reject all reasonable offers we will come and help you,” Lavrov said yesterday in an interview in Moscow. “Destabilizing Syria would have repercussions far beyond its borders.”

Clinton said yesterday that “we do not have agreement in the Security Council” on dealing with Syria.

Syria’s opposition leadership is spread across Europe, the U.S. and Arab countries, making it hard for would-be allies to identify who to help, said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

“You have multiple sides that have not coalesced around each other,” he said.

The armies of Egypt and Tunisia both preserved a distance from politics that enabled them to supervise a transfer of power that’s still under way in both countries. Some Libyan army officers defected to the rebels, adding military know-how to their popular support base.

By contrast, Syria’s military “is trained in a way that there is no distinction between the regime and the state,” said Riad Kahwaji, director of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. Still, he said, if protests continue then “logic states that fractures will begin to show.”

‘Force Has Worked’

Many Syrian military commanders are Alawites, including the president’s brother Maher al-Assad, who heads the presidential guard, an elite unit of the security forces. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, and the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s largest Sunni organization, has sided with the opposition.

Hafez al-Assad crushed a rebellion led by the Brotherhood in 1982, killing as many as 10,000 people according to Human Rights Watch, then ruled for almost two more decades. That precedent is probably in the minds of Assad and his security chiefs, said Brian Davis, Canada’s former ambassador to Syria.

“Force has worked in the past and they believe it can work again,” he said.

--With assistance from Jonathan Browning in London. Editors: Ben Holland, Heather Langan, Karl Maier, Jeffrey Donovan

To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon, at mderhally@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net


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