Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has turned to his father’s playbook as he seeks to end an uprising that threatens his family’s 40-year reign.
The government’s increasing brutality is reminiscent of 1982 when Hafez al-Assad crushed a rebellion in the city of Hama, killing thousands. Assad is using tanks and artillery in cities where protesters are calling for the end of his rule. At least 174 people were killed on Feb. 4, said the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, making it one of the deadliest days in the 11-month revolt.
“Assad turned the barrels of his guns on his people in Syria, just like his father,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former ally of the Syrian leader, said in televised comments today. “We told you to show the public that you’re different than your father. Bashar, you reap what you sow.” President Barack Obama also drew attention to the parallel last week.
Diplomatic efforts to stem the bloodshed broke down Feb. 4, when Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution by western and Arab countries to facilitate a political transition. The prospect of civil war is growing, as Al Arabiya reported defecting Syrian army units are taking tanks with them.
Obama has dismissed the idea of using a foreign military force to end the conflict that the UN estimates has already killed more than 5,400 people. Syrian forces yesterday killed 98 people in the central city of Homs, continuing an assault that started last weekend, Al Jazeera reported, citing activists. The nationwide toll yesterday was 128, Al Jazeera said.
“It’s very important for us to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention, and I think that’s possible,” Obama said yesterday on NBC’s Today program.
Turkey is using “all diplomatic channels” to work with the international community and initiate new measures to stand by the Syrian opposition and stop Assad’s deadly crackdown, Erdogan said. “I’m calling on Assad to remind him one more time that he is traveling down a dead-end street.”
Images aired by Al Arabiya yesterday showed civilians in Homs fleeing as gunfire echoed through empty streets and smoldering buildings damaged by shelling. The army also shelled Idlib in the north and Zabadani near the Lebanese border.
The Syrian Free Army, a group of soldiers who defected to the opposition, will stage a retaliatory counter attack in the province of Homs, Aref al-Hmoud, a leader of the force, told BBC’s Arabic television service by telephone from Hatay, Turkey.
Assad “is returning to his father’s playbook because he still has Russian cover at the UN,” Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in response to e-mailed questions. “The struggle will now head toward civil war and outside powers will bet on various sides.”
The current president’s father encircled Hama, a city known for its wooden waterwheels, with tanks and artillery and then bombed residential neighborhoods known to support the Sunni Muslim rebellion. As many as 10,000 people died, according to estimates cited by groups including Human Rights Watch.
The daily death toll in Syria has exceeded 60 at least three times this year, about twice the average of 34 in 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory. The total figure includes women and children, and many of those who died were killed and tortured by Shabeeha, the Syrian term for thugs associated with the regime, activists say.
The veto by Russia was its second attempt to block efforts at the UN to hold Assad accountable. Syria’s government has blamed “terrorists” and foreign provocateurs for fomenting the protests.
Syria was an ally of the Soviet Union, receiving weapons and financial support for the Arab standoff with Israel, for two decades after Hafez al-Assad took over the presidency following a 1970 coup. Russia still sells Syria weapons and has its only military base outside the former Soviet Union in the Syrian port of Tartus.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the head of its Foreign Intelligence Service, Mikhail Fradkov, travelled to Damascus today to meet Assad. After the meeting, Lavrov said Assad was committed to ending all violence and asked Russia to broker talks with opposition groups.
“It’s clear that the efforts to end the violence must be accompanied with the initiation of a dialogue among all political forces,” Lavrov said. “Today we received confirmation of the Syrian president’s readiness to cooperate on this.”
Gulf Arab countries decided to expel Syrian ambassadors from their capitals and withdraw their own envoys from Syria. The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council -- comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - - said today it will meet next week “to take decisive action.”
Syria may have reached a “point of no return,” Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, said in an interview airing today on public television’s “Charlie Rose” program.
“This is an old regime, using the same old tactics, and it just isn’t going to work, said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “They think they can get away with it, and I don’t think they are going to be able to.”