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Syria slides closer to civil war - or coup

Syrian refugees who fled from Syria to Turkey leave the Yayladagi Turkish Red Crescent refugee camp by bus, near the Turkish city of Hatay, on June 8, 2011.


People are fleeing the northern Syrian city of Jisr ash-Shughur, making for the Turkish border 20 kilometres away as thousands of elite Syrian troops and scores of tanks converge on the nearly deserted community.

Earlier this week, 120 security personnel were reportedly killed in the city, attacked by well-organized armed insurgents and, according to a government newspaper, the army has lost control of this part of the country.

That's what the elite troops and tanks intend to address.

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In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be wondering if this all-out military effort to quell the 11-week popular uprising will be his last.

"As of today, even a cautious observer would ask if it's about over for Bashar," says Barry Rubin, author of The Truth About Syria. "This looks like the tipping point," he said.

While Turkey has announced that its border will not be closed to Syrians seeking refuge from military attack, many Syrians were left waiting at the frontier Wednesday night. Residents on the Turkish side watched anxiously as people slowly made their way across the buffer zone between the two countries. Some people were picked up by Turkish ambulances and taken to hospital in the nearby town of Antakya.

"There are around 400 people camping among the trees, all from Jisr," said one 21-year-old Syrian villager, who had slipped past Turkish border guards. "We came here to fetch food. No one can leave their villages. Everyone's afraid."

In New York, the United Nations Security Council met late Wednesday to debate a resolution condemning the Syrian government's actions. France and Britain sponsored the effort to condemn the humanitarian violations that included the killing of some 1,000 protesters since March.

Beyond its domestic concerns, Syria is the linchpin connecting Iran to its Hezbollah client in Lebanon and has provided a haven for many militant Palestinian groups, including Hamas. Any move to force Mr. al-Assad from office will send reverberations across the region.

But Mr. al-Assad isn't really worried about a Security Council condemnation: Russia has made it clear it will veto any resolution to take invasive action against Damascus. So the Syrian leader really has a free pass to take any action he wishes.

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Rather, the problem for Mr. al-Assad comes when he does take drastic action, if it still makes no difference to the growing insurrection.

So far, it's been like whack-a-mole. The security forces hit one area of protest, and others pop up somewhere else.

The opposition is not monolithic - different areas have different grievances: In the south, people rose up to protest against their miserable poverty; on the coast, jealous Sunnis protested the privileges accorded the ruling Alawites, and in the centre and north of the country, in Homs, Hama and now Jisr ash-Shughur, the sleeping lion of Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood has been awakened.

This area has seen this kind of thing before. Between 1976 and 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to remove the president, Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad. The senior al-Assad hit back hard.

In 1980, special forces moved on Jisr ash-Shughur. They attacked armed rebels in the town and killed about 150 people. Hundreds of others were arrested and about 100 of them subsequently executed.

But the Syrian president's real blow was struck two years later in Hama, when Syrian forces attacked parts of the city and bulldozed them into the ground. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people were killed. The result was a period of quiet - more out of fear than acquiescence - a quiet that appears to have ended.

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It is noteworthy that, in 1982, the president dispatched the only man he thought he could trust to carry out the ruthless mission, his brother, Rifaat al-Assad. Today, too, Bashar al-Assad has dispatched his brother, Maher al-Assad, to command the forces preparing to attack.

The difference, however, is that opposition to the current regime is much more widespread than it was against the previous regime.

"No matter what they do," Mr. Rubin said, "it's pretty apparent the opposition isn't going to melt away."

It's also clear that the regime is not going to be ousted.

Syria's military officer corps is comprised largely of Alawites and Christians, who are prepared to fight to the end to protect their communities' interests. Both groups, who together comprise about 25 per cent of the population, fear the consequences of an Islamist regime that regards Alawites as heretics and Christians as infidels.

"As the circle of Bashar's supporters becomes smaller, their siege mentality and cruelty will increase," says Mordechai Kedar, a professor of security affairs at Israel's Bar Ilan University and a veteran of 25 years in the Israeli military. "They no longer will fight for the regime but to keep their heads from rolling."

If the opposition isn't going to quit, and the regime won't lie down and die, "that leaves option three," said Mr. Rubin: "The regime stays, but Bashar goes."

"It is possible that at some point a responsible adult high in the ranks of the Syrian army or the head of an intelligence agency will understand that it is worth throwing the public a bone in order to salvage as much as possible," Prof. Kedar wrote recently. "With the assistance of several armed bodyguards, he will arrest Bashar Assad along with his brother Maher and other relatives, primarily from the Makhlouf family, that of the President's mother."

Prof. Kedar foresaw that such a person "will conduct a hasty trial and treat [the Assad family]as the public expects them to be treated, in order to attain calm. He will announce constitutional changes and economic reforms and schedule elections for several months later."

The interests of the many people who support the regime are not necessarily tied to Mr. al-Assad, says Mr. Rubin, who directs the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, Israel.

"There are two parts to this regime," he said, "the man himself and his immediate family, and the larger regime, including its military support."

"Those who depend on it may be perfectly happy siding with the larger regime against the President."

So as the military deals a punishing blow to Jisr ash-Shughur in the coming days, watch to see if the uprising ends or if it pops up again somewhere else, Mr. Rubin advises. And watch to see if Mr. al-Assad is looking over his shoulder.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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