The tantalizing videos that Syrian citizens have been uploading to the internet, the reports of bombings on crowded living quarters in the city of Homs, the attack on the southern city of Dar’a, the large numbers of dead civilians, currently over sixty (twenty of whom died after the Syrian army disconnected the electricity to the quarter where the local hospital happens to be), are a testimony to Assad’s strategy that comes less than a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Damascus.
If there is one thing Assad learned from the Russians, it is the way in which they fought their war in Chechnya. A full-on campaign against rebels, bombing cities, indiscriminate massacres, population expulsions and finally gaining control of territory. This is the kind of warfare Assad is now deploying against the city of Homs, a key city and the third largest in Syria. A victory for Assad there, according to the Syrian regime, will bring about a turnaround they have been looking for.
Battles have been raging in smaller cities such as Idlib and Dara’a, as well as in large villages and in the suburbs of Damascus. Should the government gain control of Homs, it will likely influence the rest of the struggle in other parts of the country.
Homs is beseiged and subject to closure. The war in the city is being conducted neighborhood by neighborhood, where residents in the Baba Amr and the Inshaat quarters are crying out for help through their mosque loudspeakers. The reports coming out of the city describe tank fire, as well as those of mortars and rockets. They describe the fear of walking the streets in order to get to the pharmacy or hospital. Electricity and phone lines have been cut, medicine is lacking and food products are slowly disappearing in several districts. Opposite the overwhelming attack, the Free Syrian Army, which relies on small arms, rifles and a small amount of armored vehicles, cannot truly fight back, let alone defeat the military. Without any external military aid, the demonstrators can rely solely on their determination and diplomatic efforts, that until now, have not been able to bring about a ceasefire.
The pressure and diplomatic isolation, which include the Gulf States’, as well as the United States, Britain, Spain and Belgium closing their respective embassies in Syria, on top of the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador from those countries, and the verbal assault of Turkey, the U.S. and Britain have made no impression on Assad. At least until now. Even the sanctions that the European countries seek to impose on Syria, among them the freezing of deals with Syria’s central bank and the refusal to land Syrian planes in those countries’ territories, do not entirely disconnect Syria from its surroundings. Iran, Iraq, Russia and China serve as economic and logistic protection for the regime. Military personnel continue to receive their wages, and there is no lack of ammunition. A dearth of gas in some of cities influences the daily lives of the residents, but in many parts of the country, life continues more or less as it always has.
Assad’s commitment to Lavrov to bring about the cessation of violence “from all sides” is a nice way of saying that he will first take care of quieting down the protesters, and only afterwards will he stop the military. If we are to take Lavror at his word, it would mean Russia supports such actions. On the other hand, Turkey is planning an international conference that will attempt to solve the Syria crisis. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will arrive in Washington on Wednesday in order to coordinate positions, although the conference will have little influence if there is no formal agreement to act with force against Assad. Qatar’s ruler had already suggested sending Arab forces to Syria, although as expected, his suggestion was dismissed by the Arab League. It seems that if the Syrian army expands its attacks, the Arab League will eventually call for such intervention. Then, Western countries, and specifically the United States, will have to decide whether they are ready for a full-on confrontation with Russia, which may turn into a military campaign, and could drag Iran into the fray by opening up a local front in the Persian Gulf.
In addition to such concerns lays another consideration. A foreign attack on Syria may signal to Iran that the West is not deterred from attacking its ally. Although such a show of force could potentially encourage Iran to respond militarily, it may also push it to weigh its next steps regarding its nuclear arsenal. There are those who believe that an attack on Syria for the sake of human rights may prevent a war on Iran for the sake of blocking its nuclear program.
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