Syria's Assad - AP - April 16, 2011
In this image from Syrian state television President Bashar Assad makes a speech in front of his cabinet in Damascus, Syria Saturday April 16, 2011. Photo by AP
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The Syrian army yesterday entered several cities in the country, reportedly massacring civilians along the way, in what appears to be Syrian President Bashar Assad's great counterattack against his opposition. The massive operation is meant to transfer control of these cities to the hands of the military, and to put a stop to the protests by sheer force, including fire from tanks and snipers.

Dozens of opposition activists were arrested in raids, just a week after Assad canceled Syria's emergency laws.

The casualty count on Friday was the highest yet - more than 100 dead - and another 12 people were shot dead at funerals held Friday for protesters killed earlier.

For the Syrian president and the Alawite military elite around him, this is a war for survival. As his father Hafez Assad did in 1982, in Hama, Assad decided to take off the "kid gloves" and suppress the protest at any price, including equally unprecedented public criticism.

U.S. President Barack Obama's direct attack on Assad's regime did little to deter the Syrian president, who apparently decided to escalate violence against the opposition on the assumption that the international community will not take dramatic steps against Syria - that is a similar move to the bombing campaign in Libya.

Assad is, in effect, mocking his international critics. He clearly has little interest in the international community's condemnation. He has understood that the reforms he offered the Syrian public not only did not quell the unrest, but may have even added fuel to the fire.

The Syrian Interior Ministry announced that the protests were being led by radical Islamist forces seeking to harm Syrian security, and the green light was given for the military to lash out against any attempts at protest.

Until last night, the political leadership and the military rank and file have shown remarkable restraint. While opposition websites carried rumors that the commander of the third division of the Syrian army was arrested after protesting against the military's intervention in the city of Dara'a, there are are few signs of extensive defections among the military.

Alawite silence

Time Magazine reported on Sunday that Assad mainly relies on the fourth armored division, commanded by one of his brothers, and on the Presidential Guard; but the general army so far has shown scarce hesitancy in firing on unarmed protesters - even if it's unclear how long this discipline will hold.

Meanwhile, little protest is heard from the Ba'ath Party leadership or the Alawite elite.

Two members of parliament and the mufti of Dara'a resigned, but widespread defection or even criticism from within the party is nowhere to be seen.

Assad can also draw encouragement because Syria's two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have not joined in the protests seen in other cities. The few protests seen in Aleppo weeks ago soon died out.

Events in Syria are being watched with concern across the Middle East. Apart from Israel, which occasionally voices concern that one hostile ruler may be replaced with an even more hostile ruler or group, there is the worry of Assad's three natural allies, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Hamas leadership enjoys funding and hosting by Syria, and any change in Assad's status does not bode well for it.

Hezbollah and other forces operating in Lebanon understand that the Syrian president's fall could undermine the infamously fragile power equation in Lebanon, where so many have died at the hands of Syrian operatives, under both Assads.

In Iran, the specter of Assad's fall is a real concern, not only because Tehran is an important ally, but also because of the ramifications this would have for future protest against the Iranian regime.

One of Iran's leading human rights activists, Nobel Prize laureate Shereen Abadi, said on Saturday that "democracy in Islamic and Arab countries, especially in Syria, will surely have an effect on democracy in Iran. If Syria becomes democratic, Iran will lose its puppet."