Now is the Arab Spring become Syrian winter. Yet Syria faces not simply an uprising against dictatorship but a civil war.
It narrowly avoided one in 1982 and 1983. In 1982, Syrian President Hafez al Assad was caught unawares by a Sunni Muslim uprising in the north. His younger brother, Rifaat, crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in the rebel movement’s last stronghold in Hama, his special forces sparing no lives.
But Rifaat was demoted by the president and forced into exile. Rifaat subsequently overplayed his hand with a putsch against his brother in 1983. Rival army units faced off in the streets of Damascus and nearly waged a civil war. Al Assad eventually allowed Rifaat to go into luxurious exile in France.
Now, Hafez’s son, President Bashar al Assad, is facing similar troubles. The opponents this time are ordinary Syrians, who include Sunni fundamentalists alongside genuine democrats who demand an end to corruption, torture and arbitrary rule.
Bashar, who succeeded his father in 2000, has moved to crush both armed rebels and unarmed demonstrators with identical ferocity. As his father did with Uncle Rifaat, he is attempting to distance himself from security force excesses by stripping a relative of his military power. His cousin Brigadier General Atef Najib, who crushed the original protesters in the desert border town of Dera’a, has been banned from travelling while prosecutors investigate his role in the shooting of civilians from the time protests began last March.
Many of the country’s 21 million people have a vested interest in the continuation of the Assad regime, while others are demanding change. On Assad’s side are the minorities who have done well under his and his father’s rule since 1970, his own Alawite community, other Shiite groups, most of the Christians and parts of the Sunni merchant class.
Against them stand fundamentalists, Syrians from every community whose families have felt the rough heel of injustice, and the young who are sickened by ways of governing that do not permit peaceful power transfers.
Two narratives are struggling for dominance. Those who have escaped to Jordan from Dera’a and refugees from Jisr al Shughour now in Turkey describe massive security force atrocities. Meanwhile, the security forces and other regime loyalists claim to be saving the population from terror by armed rebels.
Who is right? The regime will not permit independent observers from the international media, the Red Cross, the United Nations and human rights organisations to enter the country. We are forced to rely on bogus bloggers like the so-called “gay lady of Damascus”, the official and notoriously unreliable Syrian Arab News Agency, and hazy moving pictures from mobile telephones that may or may not be genuine.
Syria is not a good venue for a Libya-style Western intervention, which might force even Assad’s opponents to rally against foreign invaders. The regime has allies at the UN who will use their veto to prevent economic sanctions against it.
But the international community could at least, at this early hour of what looks likely to be a prolonged conflict, demand free and uncensored reporting of events. It is urgent that the world press now get into the country and put at least some of the lies and rumours to rest.