Assad’s futile endgame

On Thursday, Syria’s state-run telecommunications establishment cut internet access to the entire country. The shutdown remained in place a day later, heightening fears that President Assad’s forces were severing rebel communications in readiness for yet another escalation of military action. (The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has estimated the current death toll from Syria’s civil war above 40,000.) The failure of Assad’s censorship may be gauged by the fact that shortly afterwards the New York Times interviewed rebel spokesmen via Internet services that used satellite phones, and learned that they had stopped using the government’s heavily monitored internet service months ago. In the Washington Post, one pundit described the shutdown as “A Cyclops stabbing itself in the eye.”

Despite the foolish and grandiose early claims that Facebook and Twitter were key drivers of the Arab Spring, it is nevertheless true that the region’s authoritarian governments have consistently misjudged the power of the internet. On January 26, 2011 the Mubarak regime took the extraordinary decision to almost completely close Egypt’s internet access but it quickly suffered significant losses on its stock market and was forced to restore service. Furthermore, since the government did not want to alarm tourists and foreign businessmen, it let luxury hotels retain their access, seemingly unaware that these networks were soon being used by youth activists to send video and social media updates to the outside world. Even without the internet, however, large numbers of protesters were able to find out where to go by simply switching on al-Jazeera.

In his magisterial account of the Arab Spring, the Middle East expert Marc Lynch notes that President Assad’s ham-fisted censorship made the Syrian public “deeply embedded within the Arab public sphere, even more so because of the state-enforced silence of their own media.” This connection to the wider Arab world has fuelled much of the rebels’ extraordinary tenacity. As one activist told Lynch: “It’s just time to be free. We learnt from other [Arab] revolutions not to remain silent, and that if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity we will remain cowards forever.”

In many ways, President Assad’s fate was sealed more than a year ago. Faced with protests in Deraa, Lynch writes: “Assad’s regime chose to deploy massive force on March 21 [2011] to send a message to other would-be challengers.” But the ensuing bloodshed only deepened the protesters’ convictions and continued violence eventually made them implacable. Lynch concludes that “Had Assad refrained from violence and offered deeper reforms early in the game, he likely would have been fine… violence against protestors created a predictable dynamic of escalating rage, and his regime found itself trapped by its own choices. It’s fair to say that Assad did to himself what his external enemies had failed to bring about for a decade.”

On the same day that the internet shutdown took place, the Times reported that senior officials in the Obama administration were “considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power” despite Washington’s reluctance to acknowledge a coalition of opposition forces that has already been recognized by Britain and France. The administration’s new approach to Syria is partly a consequence of the President’s re-election and partly due to “a series of recent tactical successes by rebel forces.” An important policy decision in this new dispensation will occur as early as next week when NATO considers whether to deploy surface-to-air missiles in Turkey.

Syria has clearly reached its endgame, but the number of casualties may still rise dramatically since President Assad has to date shown no signs of relinquishing power. What does seem to be changing is the willingness of the United States and its allies to engage in direct action, not only for humanitarian reasons but also to ensure that Iran’s staunchest  ally in the region is suitably humbled. Either way the Assad regime looks doomed. Its increasingly desperate manoeuvres suggest that after a year and a half of largely unchecked slaughter, the last days of the man widely known (like his father before him) as the “Butcher of Damascus”, may finally be close at hand.

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