Thursday, June 9, 2011

The balance of power is shifting

A MONTH ago seasoned watchers of Syria reckoned that the regime’s ferocious crackdown would keep the lid on dissent, albeit with President Bashar Assad’s legitimacy badly impaired. Now the prevailing wisdom is changing. Rather than subside, the protests are spreading and intensifying. Having started in the south and spread to coastal cities such as Banias, they moved to Homs, Syria’s third-biggest city, and the surrounding central districts. More recently they have gripped Hama, the country’s fourth city, famed for its uprising in 1982, when 20,000 people may have been killed by the then president, Hafez Assad, the present incumbent’s father. After starting in the rural areas, the unrest has hit cities all over the country. And the death toll, well past 1,200, has begun to rise more sharply. On June 3rd, at least 70 people are reported to have been killed in Hama alone.
The first of two big questions is whether the revolt will get going in Damascus and Aleppo, the capital and Syria’s second city respectively, which have been relatively but by no means entirely quiet. The second big question is whether the security forces, on which the regime was founded when Assad père took over in 1970, will stay loyal. If the army’s middle and lower ranks, drawn mainly from the country’s Sunni majority, which comprises some 75% of the population, begin to turn against the senior ranks where the Alawite minority (10%, including the Assad family) predominates, the regime could begin to fall apart. The events of June 5th in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, near the north-western border with Turkey, suggest that this may be starting to happen.
An accurate version of what happened there is hard to confirm, because independent reporters are banned from Syria and the state media have plumbed the depths of mendacity. Usually, however, they flag up an event and give an indication, sometimes unintentionally, of its magnitude. Then they set about rearranging the facts. In the case of Jisr al-Shughour, they at first said that 20 members of the security forces had been killed in an ambush “by armed gangs” and then, within an hour, raised the figure to 120, declaring that “decisive” action would be taken as part of the state’s duty to protect its citizens. Probably the death toll has indeed been high.
Across the country, a growing number of religious leaders are weighing in behind the protesters. More of Syria’s minorities, such as Christians, who have looked to Mr Assad for protection, may also be joining in. The several hundred thousand Palestinians who reside in Syria may also be turning against him (see article). On June 6th there were clashes in Yarmouk, the biggest refugee camp, on the edge of Damascus. “We’re getting to a tipping point, where groups waiting for a balance of power to change will move,” says a veteran analyst in Damascus. The influential Qatar-based television channel, Al Jazeera, reported that a member of the Tlass family, a Sunni clan that has been close to the president, had defected. He contradicted the government’s line that the army is fighting against armed rebels.

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