‘Liberated city’ besieged
If there had been any doubt about the regime’s willingness to use maximum force to quell the uprising, analysts said, the move into Hama, which had become a beacon of hope for protesters elsewhere in the country, seemed to dispel them.
Though the U.N. resolution called for political reforms, “it is absolute folly to think after this that you could have a regime-led transition to democratic reform,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “This tells you that this regime is as brutal as any we’ve seen in the past 30 to 40 years.”
Hama’s history as a center of opposition to the regime and the size of the demonstrations that had occurred there in recent weeks had raised hopes among residents that the government would not dare incur the wrath of the international community or further inflame domestic anger by moving on the city.
After allegedly shooting dead more than 70 protesters on a single day in June, the security forces had pulled back to the outskirts of the city. Hama had effectively become what opposition activists called “a liberated city,” in which the massive crowds drawn to protests on Fridays seemed to signal the depth of anti-government sentiment that might be unleashed if the security forces were to loosen their grip elsewhere.
The crackdown has not been confined to Hama, however. Tanks have also assaulted the eastern towns of Deir el-Zour and Abu Kamal, and security forces have embarked on an extensive effort to suppress dissent in numerous Damascus suburbs where protests had escalated in recent weeks. In the suburb of Zabadani on Wednesday, activists said, security forces threw up cordons and detained every male. In the past three days, Tarif said, thousands have been detained across Syria and more than 140 have been killed.
Risk of a vicious cycle
Whether the offensive will help suppress the revolt is in question, however. Protests have erupted in numerous towns and cities across Syria on a nightly basis since Sunday, fueled in part by anger at the Hama crackdown and by appeals by the protest movement to stage demonstrations.
“We continue to see a systematic carrying out of violence against innocent protesters. And as we’ve said repeatedly, this is only going to strengthen the resolve of the protesters,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. “We’ve seen that time and again.”
The risk for the Assad regime is that even those who have not joined the protest movement will now be driven to turn against the government, locking the country in an escalating cycle of protests and reprisals, Shaikh said.
“Who is going to go back to supporting the regime in the future? What pretense of dialogue or reform is going to placate people now?” he said. “We’re going to see more and more atrocities, which is the only thing that will move an international community confused about what to do about Assad, confused about what will come after him and confused about how to stop him.”
In one sign of growing U.S. anger, 68 senators called on President Obama on Wednesday to immediately impose additional sanctions on the Syrian government.
The senators’ letter also called on the administration to urge European countries to cancel their investments in Syria’s oil and gas sector, which are much bigger than U.S. economic interests in the country. Activists say energy sanctions could significantly affect the Syrian government’s ability to survive.
But fears of instability in what is perhaps the region’s most strategically significant nation and worries about who would follow Assad have deterred world powers, including the United States, from pressing too hard for the departure of his regime.
Staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.