BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s attempt to crush dissent through a massive military offensive appears to be backfiring, with fervent condemnations both at home and abroad undermining his government’s chances of survival.
The bloodshed of the past 10 days has drawn the ire of regional powers that had stayed silent throughout the nearly five-month-old uprising but were outraged by the killings of fellow Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. It has also prompted calls for a tougher stand in the West, particularly from Washington.
The Obama administration has stopped just short of demanding Assad’s ouster, but it appeared to be edging closer to that position Tuesday. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that “you can’t have any kind of partnership with a regime that does this kind of thing to innocents,” an indication that Washington is preparing for a final break with its two-year-old policy of engaging Assad.
U.S. officials are readying additional economic sanctions on Syria and are encouraging European countries to impose bans on its oil and gas sales. The coming days are also expected to bring renewed pressure at the United Nations for firmer action against Syria after a statement last week appealing for an immediate halt to the violence was ignored.
By sending tanks into the city of Hama and other rebellious areas, Assad may have been hoping to duplicate the tactics of his father, Hafez, whose successful suppression of an Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982 left an estimated 10,000 people dead. It took weeks before the world found out, by which time an entire generation of Syrians had been cowed into silence.
But in an age of satellite television and instant communications, “they’re not getting away with it,” said Najib Ghadbian, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, who is active in the Syrian opposition.
“This regime is living in an isolated world, and they think they can get away with mass killings, but, on the contrary, it is only hastening their departure,” he said.
There is still no sign that Assad’s fall is imminent. Opposition hopes for significant defections from the army or divisions in the government have not materialized. The protest movement remains without leaders and has offered no plan for replacing Assad, other than to continue staging protests.
But the government can expect to confront escalating pressure not only from its domestic opponents but also the wider world.
The violence has strained Syria’s close relationship with Turkey, the country considered most likely to wield influence over Assad. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu emerged seemingly empty-handed from a six-hour meeting with Assad on Tuesday in Damascus, after issuing what the Turkish media called an ultimatum to stop the killing.
Davutoglu said only that the encounter was “friendly” and that he expected to see “concrete steps” in the coming days to end the violence.
Yet Assad remained defiant, saying Syria would not relent in its pursuit of “armed terrorists,” according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency. And human rights groups reported that Syrian troops on Tuesday had launched a tank assault on a town near the Turkish border, even as bombardments and attacks on protesters continued elsewhere. The Local Coordination Committees, which organizes and monitors protests, said 34 people were killed across Syria on Tuesday.
Earlier in the week, Arab states broke their long silence on the violence in Syria, with Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia recalling their ambassadors from Damascus and the Saudi ruler, King Abdullah, issuing a strongly worded statement that left little doubt that Syria can no longer count on support from the main power brokers of the Arab world.
Arab condemnation could prove decisive in persuading the West to get tougher with Assad, as it did in tipping the balance in favor of military intervention in Libya, analysts say. Military action in Syria still seems a remote possibility — the Syrian opposition has not asked for it, and there is little appetite in the West or in the region for an intervention that could plunge the nation into civil war.
But the growing regional consensus that Assad has gone too far will embolden Western powers, including the United States, to coordinate a more coherent response to the crackdown, said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Arab buy-in opens the door to a whole other world of multilateral pressure that could be exerted,” he said. He cited a possible U.N. resolution and sanctions targeting oil exports, which would deprive the government of vital revenue. U.S. sanctions, in isolation, are unlikely to be effective because the United States has few economic ties with Syria. But European countries are among the Middle Eastern country’s biggest customers for petroleum.
Though the world’s ability to influence the isolated Syrian government is limited, activists inside Syria say they are heartened by the signs of a shift. It may help, they said, to convince those Syrians who have withheld support for the opposition until now that Assad and his allies are not invincible.
“Without international pressure, we could just keep on protesting forever and nothing will change,” said one Damascus-based activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Many Syrians, especially in the capital, have remained silent because they suspect the world’s inaction amounts to tacit support for Assad, he said.
In recent days, protests expressing solidarity with Hama have erupted on a nightly basis across the country. The pattern that has emerged over the past nearly five months, in which a crackdown in one place provokes outrage in another, suggests that the military is stretched too thin to put down demonstrations erupting simultaneously nationwide.
It remains to be seen how far the government will go if it perceives itself to be cornered, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
“The brutality we’ve seen so far is telling us that, faced with its own survival, this regime will do anything,” he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week put the number of dead in the Syrian uprising at 2,000, and activists say the true number is likely to be higher because nearly 3,000 people have entered a prison system renowned for its use of torture.
In Hama, protest leaders who had expressed confidence weeks ago that a repeat of the 1982 massacre was inconceivable sound less sure now that soldiers are combing neighborhoods with lists of people wanted for participating in protests.
“If they killed 10,000 in 1982, maybe they will kill 3,000 or 5,000 now,” said Saleh al-Hamawi, an activist in Hama contacted by satellite telephone. He was 2 years old when the first Hama massacre occurred, and his parents have told him what happened.
“This is exactly like 1982,” he said. “They will still kill a lot of people. They want to kill us all.”
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.