The vicious artillery bombardment and summary executions carried out by Syrian troops in the Bab Amr section of the city of Homs has highlighted the regime's survival strategy of waging war on what had been peaceful mass protests in order to transform the conflict into all-out civil war.
With the U.S. and other imperial powers considering further intervention beyond economic sanctions, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the top military and security forces around him have clearly concluded that drowning the revolution in blood is the only way to maintain power. After Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters withdrew from Bab Amr, Syrian troops moved in, reportedly executing dozens of men. The death toll since the beginning of the uprising in Syria was estimated at 7,500 as of March 4.
Syrian troops slammed Bab Amr with artillery fire for days before moving in March 1. Al Jazeera gave an overview:
Conditions in the western Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr have been described as catastrophic, with reports on Saturday [March 3] speaking of extended power outages, shortages of food and water, and no medical care for the sick and wounded.
Government forces took control of the opposition stronghold on Thursday after opposition fighters fled under the same constant bombardment that activists said killed hundreds of people since early February.
New shelling began in other sections of Homs on March 3, and Syrian forces also shelled the central city of Rastan, killing seven people, including four children.
There have been many examples of collective punishment and destruction in the yearlong Syrian revolutionary struggle. But in Homs, the regime launched an all-out provocation for a wider armed conflict. Up until now, the regime has opened the door for civil war. Now it is trying to throw the country through that door.
By demonstrating its willingness to detain and slaughter all men of fighting age, the government of Bashar al-Assad is hoping to break the morale of the revolutionary forces before sanctions further disrupt the already crisis-ridden Syrian economy. But if that fails to break the resistance and the revolution turns into a primarily armed struggle–such as that already being carried out by the lightly armed FSA–the Syrian military would then claim justification for an even greater crackdown.
By launching a civil war, Assad aims to cement Syria's religious minorities to his government, while keeping top military and security personnel in his camp. Much of the leadership of the regime are drawn from the Alwaite offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the state has posed as the protector of the Christian and Druse minorities as well.
In reality, the picture is much more complicated: Alawites are certainly not all tied to the regime, and a network of Sunni business figures have long been allied with the ruling Baath party. And Kurds have been systemically oppressed by the regime for decades.
Nevertheless, Assad is using a classic divide-and-conquer strategy to try to split the opposition. From the beginning, the regime has claimed that Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, armed by Saudi Arabia, were behind the uprising in a bid to establish an Islamist state. Now, by targeting predominately Sunni towns like Homs, the regime is seeking to stir up precisely those forces in order to justify an even wider crackdown.
If Assad thinks he can get away with this, it's because the opposition remains divided–and the U.S. and the West have so far been wary of undertaking a Libya-style intervention.
The U.S. fears that any wider conflict could spill over the border into Lebanon, draw in other powers and pose a threat to neighboring Israel. And the U.S. is anything but a friend of the revolution in Syria or anywhere else: it has backed client regimes in Yemen and Bahrain as they carried out their own counterrevolutionary repression. Meanwhile, Libya, the supposed positive example of Western intervention, is being run in part by former Qaddafi regime elements and unaccountable militias that had been armed by the West.
For its part, neighboring Turkey, which backed the uprising early on, is allowing the FSA to operate on its territory. But the Turkish government has not yet handed over heavy weapons to the Syrian revolutionary forces, apparently worried about the possible disintegration of the Syrian state and a massive refugee crisis. In addition, the Turkish government is hostile to any notion of autonomy for Syria's Kurds for fear that it would set a dangerous example for Turkey's own oppressed Kurdish minority.
Assad also got a boost when Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution condemning Syria for fear that it would be used as a step towards a Libyan-style intervention. This enabled the regime to seize the moment to try to achieve a decisive military breakthrough.
Because of a shortage of politically reliable troops, the Syrian military has concentrated its attacks on one or two towns at a time, allowing protests elsewhere to continue, albeit attacked by snipers and pro-government thugs. The assault on Homs, however, seems intended to provoke a widespread military confrontation, which the regime would use as a pretext for greater assaults, perhaps using air power.
While Assad's military was carrying out its crackdown, an international "Friends of Syria" conference was underway in Tunis. Nominally convened by Arab governments, the conference was also a vehicle for the U.S. and European imperial powers to push their agenda of ratcheting up sanctions on Syria in hopes that a downward spiral of the economy will crack the regime.
Also present in Tunis was the main opposition umbrella grouping, the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is internally divided over whether to call for military intervention. Even those who favor such actions are divided on what form it should take, with a minority calling for a Libya-style bombing campaign while others demand a no-fly zone and protected areas for refugees.
But initial press reports were factually inconsistent about whether other opposition groupings were invited. Some say the Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC) was invited, but then declined. Others say it was snubbed from the beginning as part of the SNC (and Western) intolerance for any other opposition group.
The NCC, while committed to the downfall of Assad, is opposed to foreign intervention. By contrast, some of the member organizations of the SNC are increasingly open in their calls for foreign military action.
Along with the political-diplomatic gathering in Tunis was a parallel meeting of Western and Arab intelligence organizations about coordinating their efforts around Syria.
France and Saudi Arabia are pushing hard for intervention, while the U.S. is more careful. The Gulf state Qatar is setting the pace: the real significance of holding the conference in Tunis is that it took place under the auspices of the Qatar-backed Ennahda government, which is guiding Tunisia, the spark of the Arab revolutions, into the camp of the U.S. and the Gulf states.
There is a counter-argument that Tunisia in fact appeased the Assad regime–both by having the Tunisian president publicly rule out military intervention in Syria and not publicly broadcasting SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun's speech at the conference. In reality, Tunisia is playing good cop: applying soft pressure on the Syrian regime with assurances for Assad of safe passage and immunity through Tunis, even as Qatar and Saudi Arabia talk of arming the FSA.
Thus after long resisting calls for armed struggle against the regime, the SNC suddenly declared the formation of a military bureau. It was a fiasco. It seems the SNC's hand was forced by an internal grouping, which threatened to (or did) split in order to work on arming the rebels. The SNC quickly gave this grouping full control of the military portfolio to keep it in the fold.
The official FSA command, however, says it wasn't approached about any of this. Turkey, which is supposed to host the military bureau, hasn't been officially informed either. And the Homs revolutionary council said there was no way that it is taking military orders from the SNC.
In the meantime, Qatar continues to be very busy. After brokering the unity agreement between the Palestinian Hamas and Fatah parties, the Qataris are now helping Hamas out of its isolation in the Arab world (and dependency on Syria and Iran). Further, with the political winds shifting in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded parties in Tunis, Egypt and Kuwait, Hamas is also shifting its alliances by publicly supporting the Syrian revolution.
The upshot: Syrian opposition groups and individuals who are for increasing military operations against the regime (whether through no-fly zones, humanitarian corridors or arming the opposition) now have the upper hand, as seen by the power play in the SNC over the military bureau.
This turn by the SNC has come under criticism from the Syrian left, both in the country an in exile. For example, Bassam Haddad wrote in the Web journal Jadaliyya that the SNC's performance in Tunis shows that:
a more robust opposition is necessary. The failure of the SNC in particular to leverage the regional and international fronts on position of principle left it with alliances that hold little promise, or legitimacy. Its inability to bring more Syrians to its side by explicitly and comprehensively denouncing sectarian behavior no matter against whom it was directed reduced its ability to create unity.
Its rush to reverse its decision and support military intervention of all sorts ultimately compromised its nationalist credentials and placed it in camps that have long been hostile to Syria and the Syrian people. Most importantly, its increasingly narrow approach has prevented it from serving as an umbrella to smaller opposition groups like the National Body for the Coordinating Committees [also known as the National Coordination Council].
With the SNC increasingly looking to foreign intervention, the Syrian revolution needs an organization that can articulate its democratic demands to win over the hesitant sections of the population.
It must clearly and unequivocally address the rights of religious and national minorities–which the Assad regime cynically pretends to do–while insisting on the sovereignty of Syria against foreign intervention. The revolutionary opposition must also make an appeal based on class by taking up the economic demands of workers and peasants. Only in this way can the revolution undercut the regime's efforts to manipulate sectarian and ethnic division.
Building such a revolutionary organization amid a brutal military crackdown and foreign pressure is a tremendous challenge. But the resilience of the Syrian movement over the past year shows that the potential is there to do so.
This article was originally published by Socialist Worker.