It is a bad omen for any government when it sends tanks into its capital city to fire against its own citizens. This the Syrian government will soon discover, after it unleashed tank, mortar and artillery fire against insurgents in several parts of Damascus Monday.
I suspect that July 2012 will go down in Syrian history as the second major turning point of the ongoing campaign by Syrians and friends abroad to remove the Assad regime. The first turning point came in May 2011, when the tortured and mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza Khatib was returned to his family in southern Syria, after 13 days of captivity in the hands of the security forces.
That shocking display of state cruelty against a child, meant to intimidate and terrorize citizens so as to wind down their young uprising, backfired on the regime. Instead, it sparked the first major expansion of the uprisings into a nationwide phenomenon, revealed for all the savage tactics the regime was willing to use even against its own children, and hastened the growth of anti-regime efforts. The combination this week of the rebels’ probing attacks in Damascus and the government’s use of tank fire in response is likely to have a similar effect.
This is not only because of the symbolism of the regime’s dual vulnerability and viciousness in its own capital, but also because the fighting in Damascus is part and parcel of developments on the three fronts – domestic, regional and international – that matter for the regime’s ability to remain in power.
Internally, the insurgent movement started probing the government’s will and capabilities in the capital. They sent a message to the state and the citizenry alike that the regime is increasingly vulnerable, and that the insurgents are increasingly able to organize and carry out bold attacks. The aim is not to launch a full-scale urban war, but to continue to demoralize the regime’s supporters and gain adherents to the rebels’ cause. Government tank fire against civilian neighborhoods in Damascus is likely to accelerate both aims.
The regime can no longer maintain the line that everything is calm in Damascus, where the people fully support the regime of President Bashar Assad. It is clear from many recent small demonstrations, and now from the organized attacks, that support for the insurgents exists inside the capital. It will only manifest itself more overtly once this threshold of military confrontations in the city has been crossed.
Regionally, the Moroccan government’s expulsion of the Syrian ambassador, followed by the reciprocal expulsion of Rabat’s envoy in Damascus, is another small sign of Syria’s growing isolation. The Moroccan move is not in itself a game-changer, but it continues the steady deterioration of Damascus’ position in the region, where most countries now back efforts to remove the Assad regime and seek a transition to a more legitimate and humane form of government.
The strong and sustained Arab political offensive against the Assad regime has always been one of the key pillars of support for the insurgents who want to remove Assad and his clan from power. An early and decisive diplomatic moment in this saga came when the Arab League last November suspended Syrian membership and called for sanctions if Damascus did not respond to the Arab League peace plan. Arab support for the opposition has increased steadily since then, including arming and funding the Free Syrian Army that coordinates many of the armed resistance groups in Syria.
Internationally, Syria faces mounting pressures from the United Nations Security Council, with the latest American- and British-led moves this week seeking to pass a resolution that would place the stalled Kofi Annan plan for a political transition in Syria under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. This would provide much more muscle to those who want to lean harder on Syria.
Russian and Iranian moves to support the Assad regime appear increasingly defensive and listless. The Russians have accused the Western powers of using blackmail against it in the U.N. This is like Madonna accusing Lady Gaga of wearing inappropriately revealing clothing. And the Iranian offer to speak to Syrian opposition leaders about a dialogue with the Assad regime is a sign of other-worldly fantasies in Tehran, more than anything else.
The cumulative consequence of these and other developments – notably several senior defections and the opposition’s ability to control patches of Syrian territory – represent another pivotal moment in Syria. International diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have reached a dead end. The armed opposition has reached the point where it can harass and provoke the regime virtually at will across the country. The regime’s core strengths have started to fray at the edges.
Hamza Khatib’s death by torture propelled the anti-Assad revolt onto a nationwide scale; this week’s developments move the Syrian conflict forward, by refocusing attention on the increasingly brittle bases of the Assad regime’s support.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.