Syrian crackdown in Hama is a 'litmus test'

With Syrian tanks at the edges of the city of Hama, an icon of rebellion, how the regime chooses to proceed could signal its plans for the country as a whole.

Nasser Nasser/AP
A veiled female protester with a headband in the colors of the Syrian flag, takes part in an anti-Syrian regime rally near the Syrian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, on July 5. Syrian troops fired Tuesday on residents who set up makeshift roadblocks to prevent the advance of tanks ringing the city of Hama, which has become a flashpoint of the uprising against autocratic President Bashar Assad, activists said.

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Almost 30 years after a brutal crackdown that left at least 10,000 Syrians dead, Syrian security forces once again entered the city of Hama yesterday to put down an uprising against the regime. The July 5 raids, which ended with at least 14 dead, came as members of the opposition received invitations from the government to talk in Damascus.

The simultaneous diplomatic overture and crackdown is a pattern that has occurred repeatedly since the uprising began in March, prompting the opposition to refuse some of the regime's offers of reform and dialogue because they say talks can't happen while protesters are being detained and killed.

How the regime proceeds in Hama could be a telling sign of what its plan is for the country as a whole, Reuters reports.

"There's a political track and a security track and they don't seem to be in synch ... Hama is a litmus test," a diplomat in Damascus said. "If the tanks stay on the outskirts and move away eventually, it would seem that the political track has won the day.

"If they continue to stay where they are, making sorties into the center of town, then maybe they are drifting back to the security solution ... So what happens there in the next few days will really be key."

Hama has been an icon of opposition to the regime since President Bashar al-Assad's father ordered a crackdown in 1982 on an Islamist uprising there that ended with a massacre of residents and parts of the city razed.

The city's symbolism for dissenters may have dissuaded President Assad from taking action until now. Security forces had originally left Hama, a city of about 800,000 in central Syria, about a month ago. But after their departure, demonstrations swelled to include as many as 150,000 protesters July 1. Assad fired the provincial governor and moved tanks into the city, but now he faces a dilemma, Reuters reports.

If he lets protesters stay on the streets, he will see his authority ebb away, but if he sends tanks into the city still scarred by the 1982 massacre, he risks igniting far wider unrest at home and deeper isolation abroad. …

"If tanks go into Hama and crush the protests, Syria will ignite from south to north and from east to west," said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "The regime will be isolated internationally, because Hama has historical symbolism."

Security forces gathered on the outskirts of the city this week and yesterday some of them entered, staging raids and opening fire on protesters who threw rocks and blocked the streets with burning tires, sand bags, and trash cans, The Wall Street Journal reported. At least 14 people were killed and more than 40 were injured. According to CNN, Syrian authorities denied a military offensive in or around Hama.

The primitive "weapons" used by Hama's protesters – stones, sand berms, and reportedly even bows and arrows – undermines one of the regime's main arguments, The New York Times notes: that the protesters are armed and dangerous.

“The regime made significant progress in terms of convincing people in Syria and abroad that there was an armed component to this protest movement and that its security forces were very much focused on that component," Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst with International Crisis Group, told the Times. “Hardly two weeks later, the regime gets embroiled in the exact opposite, once again undermining its own case.’’

The regime is also undermining its legitimacy with those who would be sitting across the table in negotiations, the Journal reports. The Local Coordinating Committees, a network of Syrian activists, rejected the dialogue offers, as did many others. If the regime isn't the one ordering the crackdowns throughout the country, then it lacks the power to hold up its end of any deal, Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organization for Human Rights, told the Journal. If it is ordered the detentions and deaths, then the opposition cannot trust the regime.


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