President Bashar Assad’s intensifying crackdown against a three-month-long democratic uprising has become more than a question of who rules Syria.
By unleashing military power against mostly unarmed Sunni Arab and ethnic Kurdish protesters, Assad’s regime, dominated by minority Alawites, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, has sharpened the region’s ethnic and sectarian divisions. The violence has also polarized world powers, pitting those in the West seeking more diplomatic tools to pressure Assad against other players such as Russia and Iran jockeying to preserve the longtime Syrian government as an anti-U.S. bulwark.
Assad’s government has raised the regional stakes by demonstrating how an unstable Syria could spread chaos beyond its borders. It has heightened tensions in the Arab-Israeli conflict by permitting Palestinian protesters to gather at the long-quiet demarcation line with Israel in the Golan Heights. Assad has also defied the international community by allowing Syrian allies to form a dangerously lopsided government in another neighboring land, Lebanon, which has long been under Damascus’ influence.
And in recent weeks, he has caused a burgeoning refugee crisis in Lebanon and Turkey, where thousands of Syrian civilians have fled to escape the crackdown by security forces intent on crushing largely peaceful rebellions inspired by those earlier this year in Tunisia and Egypt.
“Now they are really trying to destabilize things everywhere,” said Rami Nakhle, a Syrian democracy activist in Beirut. “It was Tall Kalakh [on the Lebanese border], then in the Golan, then Turkey, and now it’s Iraq. They’re trying to send a clear message that we’re trying to destabilize the region.”
Nowhere has the crackdown more dramatically altered strategic calculations than in Turkey, Syria’s neighbor to the north. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once a steadfast ally of Assad, has distanced himself, calling the Syrian government’s actions “barbaric.” Syria dispatched Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to Ankara and another official for talks Wednesday with Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, a day after the Turkish leader, a Sunni, urged Assad in a phone conversation to end the violent crackdown by his Alawite-led security forces.
Other uprisings this year across the Middle East have had nowhere near the international and regional fallout.
Unlike Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, Syria is ethnically and religiously heterogeneous, a Sunni-majority nation with sizable minorities of Alawites and other Shiite sects, Christian denominations, Druze and ethnic Kurds. Unlike Yemen, where a rebellion against longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh has unified such disparate powers as the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Syrian uprising has sharpened differences among U.N. Security Council members and regional powers over whether to punish Damascus for human rights violations.
And unlike Bahrain, Syria is no tiny island. Thousands of refugees have flooded borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and Syrians living in the country’s east braced Wednesday for the human toll of a fresh crackdown on Dair Alzour province, adjacent to the Iraqi border.
According to pro-democracy activists, military units and tanks have deployed in the provincial capital where thousands of protesters gathered Tuesday night in front of the sport stadium and the Siyaseyeh bridge. Tanks and armored vehicles were also reported stationed around the town of Bokamal on Syria’s border with Iraq.
Despite the widening military campaign and reports of violence, the Syrian government called Wednesday on thousands of refugees to return home from temporary tent camps in Turkey and along the Syrian-Turkish border. The appeal came even as democracy activists said a mother, father and their two children were shot dead while trying to leave the besieged northern city of Jisr Shughur on a motorcycle, their bodies lying unattended on a bridge because of gunfire.
Thousands more fled the northwestern town of Maarat Numan, also near the Turkish border, concerned that the Syrian military was about to launch a fresh assault.
“Cars are continuing to stream out of Maarat Numan in all directions,” an unnamed witness told Reuters news agency by phone from the city of 100,000 on Syria’s main north-south highway that links the capital, Damascus, with the second-largest city, Aleppo. “People are loading them with everything, blankets, mattresses on roofs.”
Reuters, quoting witnesses, said 70% of residents had left.
The mass exodus — with horror stories broadcast on television along with amateur videos showing massacres — threatens to destabilize Turkey, which includes a similar mix of Sunnis, Alawites, ethnic Kurds and a smattering of Christians.
Already the divisions are apparent in Turkey’s Hatay province, briefly a part of Syria after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Although many Turks have welcomed the Sunni refugees, some into their homes, Hatay’s Alawites curse the influx and have held a pro-Assad rally. Across the Middle East, official positions on the Syrian conflict have taken on a sharply sectarian character. The Shiite regime in Iran, Syria’s strategic partner, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah have all been silent on the uprising or supportive of Assad while Sunni Arab governments have become increasingly critical of the regime.
“The countries of the region are separating into blocs in accord with this [sectarian] identity, and are making the lines clear in a much more heated way than ever before,” columnist Ibrahim Karagul wrote of Syria’s collapsing relations with Turkey on Wednesday in the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak. “This means disaster for the entire geographical region; it means chaos and conflicts that will continue for decades to come.”
As Assad’s Alawite shabiha militiamen attack Sunni protesters, including young men who go bare-chested to show they’re unarmed, international calls for action increase.
“When will the Arabs say the right thing about what is happening to the unarmed Syrians?” said a June 12 editorial in Al Sharq Al Awsat, a Saudi-funded newspaper widely considered a mouthpiece of one the main factions within the Riyadh regime. “How can the Arabs rise up against [Libya’s Moammar] Kadafi, and call for the international community to take a decisive stand against him, while they do nothing about the Syrian regime?”
Iraq’s Kurds also urged their semiautonomous regional government and the central government in Baghdad to speak out against the violence across the border.
“Silence in the face of the crimes committed in Syria is a disgrace and we call on the federal government of Iraq and in Kurdistan to support human rights, freedom and democracy in Syria because it is a moral duty,” read a statement signed by 11 local organizations and several well-known personalities in Sulaymaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan’s second-largest city.
Unlike the 2009 uprising in Iran, which was crushed within months, there is no evidence that the Syrian uprising will soon fade away.
Despite the government crackdown, protests continue daily in cities across Syria, according to amateur video posted online and activist reports.
A large protest took place Wednesday in the central city of Hama, the Local Coordination Committee of Syria reported. Syrian authorities removed a statue of Assad’s father, the late Hafez Assad, from a central square in Hama, site of a 1982 massacre under his rule, after statues and portraits of Bashar and Hafez in other cities were destroyed by protesters, according to a report by Al Jazeera news channel.
In Damascus, a group of women, some covering their faces with fabric or large sunglasses to hide their identities, marched through the streets of the district of Qadam chanting slogans and holding signs saying, “We are all Hamza’s mothers,” a reference to 13-year-old Hamza Khatib, who was allegedly tortured to death and his body mutilated by security forces in the southern town of Dara.
Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut contributed to this report.