Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based human rights activist from the Damascus suburb of Daraya, told the Wall Street Journal, “The government won’t be able to control all the demonstrations if people come out every night after extra prayers as we expect.” That may be so, but one Western diplomat was quoted in the Journal as saying that Ramadan was “overhyped” as a turning point. “There will be more people out. The regime is weakened but is still able to fight,” he said.
That is what President Assad appears to be preparing to do. According to Michael Weiss of The Telegraph, Assad can no longer trust the bulk of his Sunni conscript troops so he is consolidating his loyalist Alawite units in the army and the feared shabbiha Alawite irregulars into what can only be termed death squads. The black clad shabbiha was seen following the Syrian troops engaged in the crackdowns. Not only are they gunning down civilians, but other reports say they are shooting soldiers who refuse to obey orders to fire into the crowd.
Not surprisingly, this has led to defections in the army. One unconfirmed report has a Syrian officer defecting along with hundreds of his soldiers, vowing to “send my troops to fight against the [regular] army if they do not stop the operations in Deir Ezzor.” There are several videos posted on the Internet showing smiling Syrian soldiers surrounded by applauding civilians. No one knows the extent of the defections, but most analysts put the number at several hundred.
This kind of documentation — compiled by protesters using camera phones and ordinary recording devices — is the only confirmation we have of the severity of the crackdown. Some of the videos are hard to watch. Some videographers have paid with their lives in trying to document the brutality of the Assad regime, as snipers deliberately search the crowd and try to assassinate anyone with a camera.
One video from Hama shows a pall of black smoke hanging over the city, while another documents a tank attack on unarmed civilians. The local coordinating committees have networks of bloggers, social media activists, and ordinary volunteers who have uploaded literally hundreds of videos to YouTube and other media sharing sites. Assad may have kicked out foreign reporters, but the story is being told in a much more dramatic fashion than if the BBC or even Al-Jazeera were documenting events. The video — raw, unedited, unprofessional as it is, nevertheless has had an immediate impact on the world community. And despite Assad’s best efforts, he can’t close off the country entirely. Word filters through about the support protesters are getting, and they know they are not alone in fighting the regime.
How close is Assad to losing his grip? Michael Weiss thinks that the Syrian president is beginning a final, bloody chapter to his rule, seeking to bring about a convulsive Götterdämmerung:
Just as Saddam Hussein burned oil fields as his troops retreated from the coalition invasion – one last gasp of nihilistic fury – so too does his fellow Ba’athist look to destroy anything he can before his downfall. In this case, it’s an entire country.
This may be so. It is also possible that the coming month will see such a massive outpouring of anti-regime sentiment that the rest of the nation will turn on the small Alawite clique that has been running the country for 40 years and that the government — already wobbly — will collapse as a result of internal strife.
Perhaps most worrying is what Weiss was wondering when he asked a Middle East expert whether the kind of massacre that occurred in Hama in 1982 could happen in an age of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. The chilling reply: “Why do you think having an atrocity filmed in broad daylight and exhibited to the world would stop a dictator like Assad from committing one?”
It hasn’t stopped him so far. It appears doubtful that anything will.
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