For Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
The Arab League imposed its suspension against Syria, giving the embattled leader until Saturday to halt his security forces’ violent crackdown on protesters and agree to the deployment of a monitoring group. If he doesn’t, he will face serious sanctions.
At the same time, Syria’s growing rebel forces launched the most serious military threat yet to his regime, showing that the country’s opposition will not be content with just a ceasefire.
The conflict is reverberating across the region given Syria’s position as a linchpin connecting Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon and providing a haven for many militant Palestinian groups, including Hamas.
In the predawn raids Wednesday, elements of what is known as the Free Syrian Army attacked air force intelligence headquarters northwest of Damascus, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at the command centre.
The raid came two days after a deadly gun battle in the south of Syria in which some 34 Syrian troops were killed and their two armoured personnel carriers destroyed. In an ambush and battle that reportedly lasted more than two hours, some 20 members of the attacking rebel force also were reportedly killed, as were some 12 civilians caught in the crossfire.
Looked at together, this week’s rebel attacks are enough to take the FSA seriously.
The symbolic value alone of the attack on the air force facility will not be lost on Syrians. This is where Hafez al-Assad, father of the current President, once commanded the air force before taking power of the country in 1970.
In a statement claiming credit for the attack, the FSA commander, Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, described the facility as “a killing centre” in which civilian protesters were tortured and murdered.
The commander of the facility, Jamil Hassan, is a member of the Alawite sect and part of the Assad family’s inner circle. In May, the European Union froze his assets in Europe and banned him from travel there after finding he was “involved in repression against the civilian population.”
This week, the EU extended similar sanctions to his deputy, Fuad Tawil, one of 18 senior security personnel it targeted for sanctions.
After Wednesday’s attack, the FSA announced it was forming a temporary military council to spearhead the fight to oust the Assad regime.
The council aims to “bring down the current regime, protect Syrian civilians from its oppression, protect private and public property and prevent chaos and acts of revenge when it falls,” it said.
Col. al-Asaad, who defected from the regular army to form the FSA in July, will chair the council. On Wednesday, he gave a number of international interviews in which he said his forces now number more than 15,000; a claim that is impossible to verify.
“I’d like to know what units these guys are from,” said Barry Rubin, author of The Truth About Syria. “One gets the sense they’re from regular infantry, not from the elite units.”
Such a distinction, Mr. Rubin said, is an indicator of how widespread the defections are and how unlikely the force is to succeed, at least for the time being.
President al-Assad retains control of the best units and the biggest guns; it will take many more defections to the FSA to make any real difference in the status quo, he said.
Even Jordan’s King Abdullah, in the Monday interview in which he called for Mr. al-Assad to step down, acknowledged that the Syrian leader still enjoys a comfortable position in his country.
Indeed, these initial military successes by the FSA may, counterproductively, play into the regime’s hand, providing an example of the kind of armed force the regime says it has been contending with.
Could this domestic military action spur international military action and result in a Libya-like sequence of events?
Possible but highly unlikely, said Washington-based Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid, given the current posture of NATO and the Arab League.
The FSA isn’t nearly enough, he argued. There needs to be safe zones inside Syrian territory and the creation of no-fly/no-go zones.
Turkey already has suggested the creation of a safe zone inside Syria, but who’s going to establish it? “There’s no way Turkey is going to go to war against Syria. Not over this,” Mr. Rubin said bluntly.
“The thing you have to remember above all else is that this [Assad]regime, a minority regime, will not surrender,” said Mr. Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel. “Giving up power means death to these guys. They’d prefer to fight to the death.”
Indeed, in the two weeks since Syria announced it was agreeing to the Arab League ceasefire initiative on Nov. 2, the country has endured one of the deadliest periods since the popular uprising began in March. Some 376 Syrians have been killed by regime forces, according to the Local Co-ordination Committees, a leading opposition group operating inside Syria.
TEN KEY MOMENTS IN THE REVOLT AGAINST AL-ASSAD
- April 8: Inspired by successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrators protest across Syria, with 22 people killed in Deraa and another 15 elsewhere, rights group says.
- April 22: Security forces and gunmen loyal to Mr. Assad kill at least 100 protesters, a rights group says.
- June 4: In the town of Jisr al-Shughour, between the coastal city of Latakia and Aleppo, at least 120 members of the security forces are killed, state television says.
- June 20: In his third speech since protests began, Mr. al-Assad pledges to pursue a national dialogue on reform.
- July 31: Syrian tanks storm Hama, residents say, after besieging it for nearly a month. At least 80 people are killed.
- Aug. 21: In an interview on state television, Mr. Assad says he expects parliamentary elections in February, 2012, after reforms that will let groups other than his Baath party take part.
- Sept. 15: Syrian opposition activists, meeting in Istanbul, announce the formation of a Syrian National Council to provide an alternative to Assad’s government. On Oct. 2 the main opposition groups call on the international community to take action to protect people facing the crackdown.
- Nov. 2: Syria agrees to an Arab League plan to withdraw its army from cities, release political prisoners and hold talks with the opposition. The next day activists say security forces killed 11 people in Homs.
- Nov. 12: The Arab League suspends Syria’s membership for pursuing a crackdown on opponents instead of implementing the Arab peace initiative.
- Nov. 16: Army defectors attack a large air force Intelligence complex on the northern edge of Damascus. The same day, Syrian television shows thousands of Assad supporters rallying in Damascus and Latakia to mark the day his father Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970. It said the crowds were also voicing their rejection of the Arab League’s decision.
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