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Overlooked Massacres: The Syrian Government Murdered 200 Citizens This Week

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By HVnews on December 21, 2011

Syria has received the least amount of press coverage throughout this amazing year of protesting, despite hosting the bloodiest confrontations. In what has already been a tragic year for Syrian protesters, this week isshaping up to be one of the deadliest.

As many as 200 people may have been killed by government forces since Monday. Multiple activist groups in Syria say that more than 100 people were killed in the town of Kfar Owaid on Tuesday.

The U.N. claims more than 5,000 Syrians have been killed since March.

Coincidentally, the massacre in Kfar Owaid was also the same day that President Bashar al-Assad finally agreed to allow foreign monitors into the country. Unfortunately, the Arab League has little hope of stopping the atrocities and enacting a peace settlement.

The new round of violence this week began after the military ramped up its efforts to crackdown on defectors. Security forces killed up to 70 army defectors as they were deserting their military posts in Idlib near the Turkish border, activists said, in an effort to fight for the protesters. 

Exact death tolls vary amongst the activist groups and details are tough to confirm because the government does such a great job of controlling information.

Most outside media outlets seem to agree the crackdown, which also includes live fire exercises involving warplanes, helicopters and surface-to-air missiles broadcast on state TV, is Assad’s attempt to settle “unfinished business” ahead of the Arab League’s arrival.

With as little information that’s out there, it’s still fairly evident that the United Nations has to do something. The Syrian death toll continues to rise and Assad as little incentive to broker a peace with the protesters. He’s seen how his regime will end if he lets down his might, as evidenced by the fall of Gadhafi, Mubarek and Ben Ali in Tunisia.

Further, as Foreign Policy’s Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith note, Assad isn’t crazy, he’s just doing whatever he can to survive.

Assad depends on the backing of key members of the Alawite clan, a quasi-Shiite group consisting of between 12 and 15 percent of Syria’s mostly Sunni population. The Alawites make up 70 percent of Syria’s career military, 80 percent of the officers, and nearly 100 percent of the elite Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division, led by the president’s brother Maher. In a survey of country experts we conducted in 2007, we found that Assad’s key backers — those without whose support he would have to leave power — consisted of only about 3,600 members out of a population of about 23 million. That is less than 0.02 percent.

Basically, Assad and the small number of military elite are doing whatever they can to keep each other in a position of power. Assad depends on the military to be president and the military depends on Assad to keep them in a cushy lifestyle they have grown accostumed to. Therefore, Assad has more to fear from upsetting the military elite than he does from the protesters.

That’s a dangerous proposition. If the UN doesn’t do something, this is all going to end much worse than anything the world witnesses during the Arab Spring.

As the Foreign Policy essay reminds us:

There are two effective responses to a mass uprising (other than stepping down, of course, which leaders almost never do until all other options have been exhausted): liberalize to redress the people’s grievances or crack down to make their odds of success too small for them to carry on. Leaders who lack the financial wherewithal to continue paying off cronies often choose to liberalize. (Remember South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk, who negotiated a government transition with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress when economic decline made the apartheid system unsustainable.) Those who can muster the money to sustain crony loyalty do so. This is why the rich oil states to Syria’s south have resisted reform and why, despite its popular uprising, Libya will not become democratic. Here is another case where Assad’s statement that it is not his country is true, but only partially. As president, he could liberalize to buy off those rebelling, but his key backers will almost certainly not allow him to do so as long as there is enough money to keep paying foot soldiers to crack heads. With Syria’s oil wealth in decline and with stiff economic sanctions, the regime’s two choices are to liberalize or to find new sources of money. They have succeeded in the latter pursuit.

Reuters reported on July 15 that Iran and Iraq offered Assad’s regime $5 billion in aid, with $1.5 billion paid immediately. The $5 billion is equal to about 40 percent of Syrian government revenue. Since the announcement of Arab League sanctions, Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela have signed agreements to expand trade and investment in Syria to the tune of more than $7 billion in 2012, including building an oil refinery. That is just what Assad’s political-survival doctor ordered. This injection of cash in the short term is likely to keep the military and security forces on his side. The military core of his coalition is likely to do whatever it takes to keep the president in power as long as that money keeps on flowing. That is the essential synergy of all leader-coalition arrangements.

The process of getting to reform within the next 2-5 years is going to be ugly in Syria unless other nations step in to take control of the situation in the short-term. Most Syrians felt as though Assad was going to bring about modern reforms to the country and he still may be that leader. But right now, he’s stuck in a corner and the only way out is through the might of the military.

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