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Eid ul-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, may be a festive time for most Muslims. But Syria's regime has little to celebrate, with President Bashar al-Assad losing support from two key constituencies as Europe moves to finalize oil sanctions by the end of this week.
Today hundreds came out to protest in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city and a bastion of support for Mr. Assad that has been largely silent in the five-month uprising – until now.
The tacit support of Aleppo, Damascus, and Syria's business community have often been cited in recent months as preventing the collapse of Assad's regime.
Now, with the uprising's death toll ticking past 2,200 and the European Union expected to impose oil sanctions in a matter of days – the latest in a string of Western embargoes – businessmen are feeling increasingly uneasy in Assad's Syria, according to Reuters. Regional trade has fallen by 30 to 40 percent, and investment and tourism revenue has dropped precipitously.
A Damascene industrialist who exports dairy products to Middle East markets said businessmen felt the security crackdown, in which 2,200 people have been killed, was hurting their interests.
"They are seeing the boat sinking and are starting to prepare to jump ship," he said.
The EU oil sanctions are expected to be the biggest economic hit yet to the regime, which is a key exporter of oil to Europe. The sanctions will force Syria to ship its oil further away for less money, but since the country had significant financial reserves at the outset of the uprising the sanctions alone are unlikely to bring down the regime, reports Reuters.
Assad's security forces have continued to crack down on civilians, even during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that ends today with the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr.
Today six were killed in the southern province of Deraa and one was killed in the central city of Homs after security forces fired on worshipers leaving mosques, The New York Times reports. According to the Local Coordination Committees, a clearinghouse for Syrian opposition protests and activities, soldiers and plainclothes police were staked out near mosques to prevent people from praying. Mosques have been used as a rallying point in the uprising, making the Assad regime wary of allowing large numbers of Syrians to gather for prayer.
But increasingly, particularly since the fall of Tripoli, soldiers have opted to desert the Army rather than fire on protesters. Local Coordination Committees warned protesters in Syria against taking up arms against the Assad regime, as the protesters did in Libya, the Associated Press reports.
“While we understand the motivation to take up arms or call for military intervention, we specifically reject this position,’’ said a statement from the committee. “Militarization would . . . erode the moral superiority that has characterized the revolution since its beginning.’’
Many international powers, including traditional allies of Assad, seem to agree that the uprising has thus far maintained the moral high ground and sided with the grass-roots movement.
The Arab League dispatched its head, Nabil al-Arabi, to Damascus and urged Assad to "follow the way of reason before it is too late, and former ally Turkey said it had "lost confidence" in Assad's ability to rule, Agence France-Presse reports. Even Iran, Syria's closest ally, called on the regime to heed the "legitimate demands" of the protesters.
"Assad is increasingly isolated," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "The international community is increasingly speaking with one voice in demanding an immediate end to the violence."
Syria specialist Joshua Landis argues that the international community has fulfilled its role in the uprising by isolating Assad, but without an organized opposition, the uprising will go no further because other countries will not know with whom they can work. Yesterday's meeting in Ankara to form the Syrian National Council prompted significant infighting among the various factions of the opposition – including expatriates, whom he compares to Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi expatriate who played a high-profilerole in persuading the Bush administration to invade Iraq.
The stumbling block in the way of developing further momentum for the revolution is the Syrian opposition itself. Western capitals have been driving the momentum over the last weeks with condemnations, enhanced economic embargoes, and by herding Arab and Middle Eastern statesmen to make accusatory and condemning statements about the Syrian regime. If the opposition continues sniping among factions, momentum will be lost. To whom should aid be sent? To whom could arms be sent if a military option is to be opened? More importantly, whom should the Syrian people look to as an alternative to this government?
A full fledged food fight has broken out among opposition leaders over who should assume control over the revolution, whether it should take up arms, and what role foreign powers are playing. Underlying these overt clashes is the question of how much play should be given to Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood; Arabism versus Syrianism (the Kurds want recognition of their national and linguistic rights within a Syria that is not defined ethnically), and can ex-patriots lead or do they establish a “Chalabi effect?”