BEIRUT

Middle East

Rage against the regime? Failures, abuses stir criticism

Anti-regime activists have launched the Speak Up campaign over Alawite deaths.

BEIRUT: The criticism rarely reaches President Bashar Assad, but regime supporters are directing more and more anger and ridicule at the government for failing to halt the steady flow of casualties in a war against terror that never seems to end.

The regime’s failure to rein in “shabbiha” paramilitaries, or negotiate seriously to secure the release of people captured by rebel groups also figure high on the loyalists’ lists of complaints.

A rare protest against the regime took place this week in Omayyad Square, by several dozen relatives of people seized by rebel militias in the Damascus suburb of Adra late last year.

They demanded that the regime negotiate to free their loved ones, in what was believed to be the first such open expression of discontent by loyalists in a regime-held area since the war began.

Otherwise, regime supporters have often relied on social media and informal “news networks” covering specific areas of the country to voice their views, and while general complaints have been voiced before, a series of battlefield losses this summer have generated even fiercer criticism.

The Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS caused hundreds of casualties in the ranks of regime troops, paramilitaries and civilian employees when they stormed the Shaar gas field in Homs, and the army’s Division 17 in Raqqa province, and Brigade 93 in Hassakeh province.

In Hama province, dozens of regime troops have been killed in fighting around the strategic town of Morek, located on the international highway, in recent months. While on the border with Lebanon, the Qalamoun front – supposedly “shut down” earlier in the year by Hezbollah and regime troops – has been reignited by rebel and jihadist groups, as regime casualties continue to be reported.

A Facebook page was started by loyalists to draw attention to the Raqqa debacle, and its title – “The traitor (Defense Minister Fahd) Freij is responsible for the martyrs of Division 17” – gives an idea of how fierce the criticism has become.

The page castigates Freij for the army’s failure to provide support for the Division 17 military personnel, hundreds of whom fled the area and were either butchered by ISIS militants, or arrived as desperate survivors in nearby military facilities after weeks without news of their whereabouts.

The page, as with other loyalist social media, was still busy this week reporting the names of soldiers who eventually survived the ordeal.

“I’ve noticed recently how the defense minister makes [televised] visits to hospitals and appears at other ceremonies, so now I know why the army’s situation isn’t reassuring,” one of the page’s administrators said dismissively Friday, suggesting that Freij spend more time at the front lines.

The impassioned post makes an explicit call for Freij to be replaced by Col. Suheil al-Hasan, the commander of the Aleppo front.

Other regime figures who regularly come in for criticism are Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs, who earlier this month reportedly ordered the detention of the administrator of a local pro-regime page over an unflattering post.

Another focus of anger is the behavior of shabbiha thugs or paramilitaries working for the regime – this week, people in the Christian town of Marmarita in Homs used their Facebook page to send an open letter to Assad, asking him to intervene after a young man from the town was kidnapped as part of a long-running local conflict with the shabbiha.

The criticism rarely if ever touches Assad, the commander in chief of the armed forces.

Instead, the army command is the usual target of vitriol, mostly for failing to send reinforcements or come up with “decisive” tactics in places such as Morek, Qalamoun, Aleppo or the suburbs of Damascus.

An anti-regime observer and media professional from one of Syria’s minority communities told The Daily Star a change in pro-regime areas of the country has been palpable of late, particularly due to the steadily rising casualty figures.

“It’s as if people have been slapped in the face, and they are very frightened,” he said, referring to the gains by ISIS.

“The regime seems to have sacrificed its soldiers in Raqqa, and Hassakeh, and now the [nearby] military airport in Tabqa is next,” he said, referring to ISIS’ declared intent to pursue its campaign there.

“To them, ISIS has a strategy that it is following, but the regime doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy to confront this.”

In discussing the morale of loyalists, many observers focus on Assad’s Alawite community, although there are regime supporters in the ranks of all sects and ethnic groups.

Bassam Yousef, a former member of the opposition-in-exile National Coalition, told The Daily Star that the phenomenon of loyalists blaming the regime or army command in the abstract demonstrates the “misguided” thinking of regime supporters and the Alawite community at large.

“Accusing the army of treason isn’t logical,” Yousef said, “but most people deal with the situation in this way, because they don’t have a true understanding of the situation they find themselves in.”

Yousef, of the Alawite community, said the criticism was unlikely to reach the top of the regime, because what loyalists want most of all is “reassurance” in the face of the threat from ISIS, meaning that all other considerations are secondary.

“The conflict for them is over their future, and there is no room for logical discussion” of who is actually responsible, he said. “In the end, marginal figures are being blamed.”

This week, a group of anti-regime Alawites clandestinely distributed anti-Assad flyers in the cities of Tartous and Latakia, seizing on the sensitive issue of ever-rising number of Alawite casualties of the war.

One leaflet featured the provocative slogan “the chair [of the presidency] is for you, while the coffin is for our children.”

Several observers remarked that this protest action by a small number of anti-regime activists was unlikely to lead anywhere, and Yousef said the opposition itself was at fault for failing to offer Alawites a viable political alternative.

He said “the opposition hasn’t given them anything, just theories” about their role in a future Syria after being associated, rightly or wrongly, with the Assad regime.

Many Alawites consider themselves anti-regime, but they have been unenthusiastic about a political opposition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and a military insurgency dominated by conservative Islamist militias.

“Don’t be surprised if you eventually see conflicts break out within the [Alawite] community, with groups fighting each other, because they are unable to confront the regime,” Yousef said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 15, 2014, on page 11.

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