Is Assad losing Syria? As concerns grow, US urges halt to 'intimidation.'

A realization appears to be growing in the West and the Middle East that Assad's regime is falling apart amid its crackdown on dissent. The State Department urges him to accept political dialogue.

By , Staff writer

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    This mobile phone photo shows anti-Assad protesters holding a banner denouncing the Syrian president during a demonstration against the Syrian regime, in Kfar Nebel, a village in northwest Syria on Friday.
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The United States turned the rhetorical heat on Syria up a notch Tuesday – as sentiment grows among Western and regional powers that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is gradually doing himself in.

With the Assad regime’s forces encircling the opposition stronghold of Hama Tuesday and reported to have caused at least six more civilian deaths there, the State Department said the US is “very concerned” about continuing and spreading violence that is taking Syria “in the wrong direction.”

The US is urging the Syrian government to “immediately halt its intimidation and arrest campaign” and to proceed with the political dialogue President Assad has promised, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters.

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Noting that as recently as last week Hama was a “positive example” of how political expression could proceed, Ms. Nuland referred to the weekend violence there and added, “We are going in the wrong direction.”

Hama remains an international symbol of the Assad regime’s history of violent repression, since it was there that the current ruler’s father, Hafez al-Assad, put down a 1982 insurrection by killing at least 10,000 of the city’s residents.

The State Department comments reflect what appears to be a dawning realization among a number of international powers, including the US, that a regime until recently thought likely to weather the protest storms – and which was assumed to still have time to right its ship – may indeed be falling apart. About 1,500 people have been killed in Syria since the protests began.

Syria’s abandonment by some traditional allies, including Turkey and Gulf states, plus the sight of continuing and even growing protests despite intense repression, have some European capitals reconsidering assumptions about Assad’s survivability.

“People think at least that things are never going to be the same for [Assad],” says one European official, adding that the perception is growing that Assad is losing control. “What has impressed people is that even after a violent crackdown, [Assad] is confronted with huge protests,” the official adds.

The US has stopped short of calling on Assad to step down from power, in part reflecting the deep concerns of some US allies in the region – first among them Israel – that a Syria without Assad would be an even bigger problem.

But some Middle East experts say they have detected a shift in thinking among some US officials toward the idea that Assad is bungling his challenge and causing his own demise.

“There are a number of people in the US government who think the Syrian government is crumbling from within,” says Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Assad is seen to be gradually losing control of the state’s security forces as he stretches the special units in his control to confront mushrooming protests, Mr. Clawson says. And that, he adds, is leading people to wonder how or if he can recover.

“The special units have not been able to bring things under control,” he says, “and to the extent they’re in the whack-a-mole game, they’re in a big problem.”

Turkey is a prime example of a friend Assad could have used in the international community, but which he has now lost. Not only has the Turkish government referred to Assad’s repression of protesters as “savagery,” but it is now threatening to enter Syria to create a buffer zone to insulate itself from a further onslaught of refugees.

Some human rights advocates are calling for Assad to face the same fate as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi – indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

But that seems unlikely to happen, perhaps because Colonel Qaddafi suffered that fate first. According to the European official, Syria is not a party to the statute that created the ICC, and so is not subject to its indictments.

The UN Security Council could refer the Syria case and Assad specifically to the ICC. But that is the avenue by which Qaddafi was recently hit with an ICC indictment, and some Security Council members – notably Russia – have since got cold feet about aggressive Security Council action against leaders facing domestic political uprisings.

France and Britain, joined by the US, continue to want a Security Council resolution on Syria, but officials from both European governments acknowledge that resistance on the council to such action continues to put off a council vote.

The Europeans do not believe that the continuing violence in Syria has as yet altered what one official calls the “dynamics” at the UN.

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