Syria defiant despite increased regional pressure

Turkey's foreign minister pushed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad today to end the violence. But Syria, which launched more assaults today, has rarely yielded to such pressure in the past.

By , Correspondent

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    A deserted building is seen in the central province of Hama, Syria on Aug. 7. The Syrian government organized a trip for media into a restive city in Hama province. The Syrian authorities repeatedly said that there are armed men in Deir al-Zour and the central cities of Homs and Hama, who are terrorizing people and sabotaging public and private properties.
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad finds himself increasingly isolated as Syria's neighbors break their silence to join an international chorus of criticism over the worsening violence.

In the latest signal of regional displeasure with the Syrian authorities, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu traveled to Damascus today to deliver a stern warning that Ankara has “run out of patience” with the harsh crackdown that has left more than 2,000 dead since the uprising began.

While Turkey has taken the lead in speaking out against Syria’s handling of its internal crisis, Arab countries have broken their silence for the first time to express disapproval of the ongoing violence.

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But the increased regional pressure on Damascus may not yield immediate results, analysts say. Over the past decade, the Syrian regime has rarely succumbed to external pressure and instead has earned a reputation for deftly playing off one side against another.

"The regime will try and stretch out the conversation as long as they can. You can't try and divide your neighbors if you stop talking to them," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Meanwhile, Damascus could let PKK members out of their jails," he adds, referring to the Kurdish group struggling for autonomy in southeast Turkey, which has been designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, Syria, and Western nations. (Editor's note: The original version misquoted Mr. Tabler.)

On Tuesday, as India, South Africa, and Brazil joined Turkey in sending representatives to Damascus to push for an end to violence, Syrian tank assaults killed another 30 people, according to the opposition-run Syrian National Organization for Human Rights.

Saudis decry Syrian 'killing machine'

On Saturday, the Gulf Cooperation Council – a regional bloc that includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – expressed concerns over the “mounting violence and the excessive use of force which resulted in killing and wounding large numbers.”

On Sunday, the Arab League called on Syria to “immediately halt all acts of violence.”

The most significant criticism, however, came from Saudi Arabia with King Abdullah describing the Syrian regime as a “killing machine.”

“The future of Syria is between two options: Either it chooses wisdom willingly or drifts into the depths of chaos and loss, may God forbid,” he said, adding that the Saudi ambassador to Damascus was being withdrawn for consultations.

The unusually frank Saudi criticism appears to have been provoked by the escalating death toll as Syrian security forces launched offensives against the cities of Hama and Deir ez Zour over the past week, which also coincided with the beginning of the month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan, traditionally a period of fasting and piety.

The Saudi condemnation of the violence has opened the door for a tougher stance from Syria’s Arab neighbors who, until now, have been generally reticent in speaking out. Bahrain and Kuwait were quick to follow the Saudi lead, recalling their own envoys to Syria on Monday.

Syria maintains that its security forces are fighting against foreign "saboteurs" and terrorists. It contests the figure of 2,000 casualties and points to the death of hundreds of security forces as evidence that it faces more than a peaceful civilian uprising.

An Iraqi politician openly voices disapproval for the first time

While the Gulf states have taken a lead in pressuring Damascus, Syria’s immediate Arab neighbors are more hesitant. Jordan has remained quiet throughout and Iraq has yet to voice a united view on Syria.

In May, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for reforms to be implemented but stopped short of voicing disapproval of the crackdown. Iraq’s Shiite community, to which Maliki belongs, views with unease the potential emergence of a strong Sunni administration to replace Assad’s regime, which is composed mainly of Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

On the other hand, Iraq’s Sunnis, especially those living in the Al-Anbar province, the inhabitants of which share strong tribal ties with the population of eastern Syria, have voiced support for the uprising. And Osama al-Nujaifi, Iraq’s Sunni parliamentary speaker, on Tuesday became the first leading Iraqi politician to openly voice disapproval of the Assad regime’s handling of the uprising.

“We call for an end to all nonpeaceful activities, and what is happening in Syria, the shedding of blood and the oppression of freedom, is condemned and unacceptable,” he said.

Lebanese government alone in supporting Assad

Although the struggle in Syria is chiefly one between repression and aspirations of freedom and dignity, it is impossible to disentangle it from the complex web of sectarian identities and loyalties that shape the country. The Syrian opposition is dominated by the Sunni community and the regime by Alawites, instantly lending the unrest a sectarian edge.

That sectarian split is mirrored in Lebanon, which lives under the shadow of its powerful neighbor. The Lebanese government, which is mainly composed of allies of the militant Shiite Hezbollah, has become a lone voice in the region in continuing to officially support the Syrian regime.

Last week, Lebanon, which currently has a seat on the United Nations Security Council, distanced itself from a statement issued by the council condemning Syria’s use of force against the protesters. The decision drew strong criticism from Lebanese opposition groups, some of which have organized demonstrations in support of the Syrian people, including one yesterday in Beirut.

“Lebanon cannot disassociate itself from the open massacre being committed in its closest fraternal country,” said Saad Hariri, a former prime minister and leader of the opposition Future Movement. “But Lebanon’s president, government and institutions should instead disassociate themselves from adopting the policies of oppression that the Syrians are enduring.”

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