- By Region
If any further proof were needed about the nature of the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad, the horror of the recent and continuing massacres in Syria provides it. Of the 108 civilians killed in Houla last month, 49 were children and 34 were women. More than half the 78 dead in last week’s atrocity in Mazraat al-Qubeir near Homs were women and children.
Such savagery suggests a regime in despair at its inability to regain control of a country and a people that refuses to buckle in the face of a pitiless onslaught. While the Assad clan has not lost its grip on power, its position continues to be eroded.
Repeated army offensives over more than a year have failed to put down what began as a civic uprising but then acquired an armed wing that is starting to look like a co-ordinated insurgency. There are credible reports that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have started funnelling cash and arms to the rebels, with the US playing a coordinating role.
The Assads, meanwhile, still rely on a limited number of loyalist units and the Shabbiha militia drawn from their minority Alawite sect – enough to cause horrendous bloodshed but not enough to prevail. The army, forced to carry out and repeat regional offensives on a sequential basis around the country, shows signs of exhaustion – even demoralisation. In April, a video-clip leaked to al-Arabiya, the Saudi TV network, showed one commander reassuring his officers that reinforcements would soon be with them. New troops were being trained, in and outside the country. Whether or not this is true, what was the question to which this was the answer?
Last month, the number of army fatalities rose to its highest level since the conflict began. The regime is losing scores of troops at a time in rebel hit-and-run attacks across the country. As the still fragmented insurgents get better armed, moreover, government armoured units – commanded by the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad – are starting to look vulnerable, losing 20 tanks and armoured personnel carriers in fighting last week.
The Assads are not just bleeding legitimacy across their Sunni majority country but inside their Alawite community. “Bashar keeps on telling them he is going to impose a military solution and then he is unable to do it”, says a leading Lebanese politician with long experience of Syria. “He is losing credibility within his own community”.
At the same time, the coerced social compact underpinning Syria’s security state is in tatters. The old deal was that the regime denied its citizens freedom and, in exchange, stamped tolerance on Syria’s religious mosaic, offered real if stifling stability, and shared enough of the economic pie to keep the Sunni middle classes inside the status quo. Now the Assads have unsheathed the sectarian knife, unleashed chaos and, as the economy and public finances disintegrate, there is little pie left to share. Shabbiha terror at Houla, Mazraat al-Kubeir and elsewhere is now triggering waves of strikes by merchants and shopkeepers who had hitherto stayed on the fence.
The recent massacres may also speak of a more radical despair. They had no military rationale beyond the sectarian cleansing of mixed Alawite and Sunni areas in north-west Syria. Indeed, the current week-long bombardment of Haffeh in the coastal foothills of the north-western mountains targets a Sunni town in the Alawite heartland. Since the uprising began there have been tell-tale signs the regime was clearing lines of retreat to this region as a fallback position. That helps explain the repeated attempts to subdue the city of Homs, the gateway to the Alawite safe haven. Refugees from the area say army engineers have been deployed there to upgrade its often basic infrastructure.
None of this suggests a regime confident about its future. What it does suggest is that the opposition’s most viable goal is not to defeat the army but to split it – by raising a magnetic pole of armed resistance credible enough to attract larger defections, and to demoralise the regime by raising the price of repression.