Syrian ruling party members defect en masse

More than 200 Baath Party members announced their resignation Wednesday in the largest expression of dissent since the party came to power in 1963.

In this image made on a mobile phone, people walk past pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday.

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More than 200 members of Syria's ruling Baath Party resigned Wednesday in protest of the violent crackdown on antigovernment protesters.

Although the bulk of the resignations came from low-level party officials of little importance individually, the mass resignation is significant because the Baath Party has ruled Syria since 1963 with almost no dissent. It counts about 10 percent of Syrians (about 2 million people) as members, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While the Syrian government classifies itself as a parliamentary republic, according to the US State Department it is in reality "an authoritarian regime" led by the Assad family and Baath party, virtually uninterrupted and uncontested for decades. A defection like this was "unthinkable" before the antigovernment protests that erupted in March, according to the Telegraph.

Baath officials in Deraa announced their resignation in a statement Wednesday, according to the BBC:

"In view of the negative stance taken by the leadership of the Arab Socialist Baath Party towards the events in Syria and in Deraa, and after the death of hundreds and the wounding of thousands at the hands of the various security forces, we submit our collective resignation."

As of Thursday, more than 400 people had been killed since protests erupted, according to figures from various human rights organizations in Syria. In a separate statement, 30 Baath party members in the coastal town of Banias announced their resignation, the Wall Street Journal reported:

"Considering the breakdown of values and emblems that we were instilled with by the party and which were destroyed at the hand of the security forces … we announce our withdrawal from the party without regret," a letter by 30 party members from Banias said. The letter described the indiscriminate use of live ammunition and pervasive home raids in their city.

There were also unconfirmed reports that members of the Syrian Army refused to fire on protesters and clashed with the Fourth Mechanized Division, an elite Army unit led by Maher Al Assad, President Bashar Al Assad's brother, according to the Guardian. A split in the Army "would present an unprecedented challenge to the Assad regime's four-decade rule and cast serious doubt on its ability to survive," The Christian Science Monitor reported on Monday, after similar clashes in Deraa.

But while dissent appears to be crystallizing in Syria, the international community has made little progress on collective action against the Assad regime, which has steadily refused to cease using violence against protesters.

Efforts to pass a United Nations Security Council statement condemning the violence remains stalled by the refusal of several members, including Russia, to support it. Russia has veto power on the council and blocked the statement Wednesday.

According to Al Jazeera, Russia insisted that the violence in Syria did not meet certain criteria that justify international action against the Syrian government – namely that it was not a threat to international peace and security – and that foreign intervention would pose a threat to regional security.

Alexander Pankin, the Russian deputy UN ambassador, said that foreign intervention leads to "a never ending circle of violence" and could set off civil war. Russia has been a vocal critic of the foreign intervention in Libya.

Meanwhile, some European countries are continuing their efforts against the Assad regime independent of the UN. The governments of France, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain collectively told the Syrian ambassadors in their countries that they condemned the crackdown and insisted that Assad "change his ways," according to Al Jazeera.

The European Union will meet on Friday to discuss the possibility of sanctions against Syria. The US is also pursuing sanctions against Syria, but EU sanctions would carry much more weight. According to the Wall Street Journal, the EU is Syria's main trade partner and trade between the two countries totaled $7.9 billion in 2009 – 23 percent of Syria's trade.

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