It is a bad omen for any government when it sends tanks into its capital city to
fire against its own citizens, as the Syrian government will discover soon,
after it unleashed tank, mortar and artillery fire against insurgents in several
parts of Damascus Monday.
I suspect that July 2012 will go down in Syrian history as the
second major turning point of the ongoing campaign by Syrians and friends abroad
to remove the Assad regime. The first turning point was in May 2011 when the
tortured and mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza Khatib was returned to his
family in southern Syria, after 13 days of captivity in government hands. That
shocking display of state cruelty against a child, meant to intimidate and
terrorize citizens so as to wind down their young uprising, backfired on the
regime. Instead it sparked the first major expansion of the uprisings into a
truly nationwide dynamic, revealed to all the savage tactics the regime was
willing to use even against its own children, and hastened the growth of
anti-regime efforts. The combination this week of the rebels' probing attacks in
Damascus and the government's use of tank fire in response is likely to have a
This is not only because of the symbolism of the regime's dual
vulnerability and viciousness in its own capital, but also because the fighting
in Damascus is part and parcel of developments on the three fronts -- domestic,
regional and international -- that matter for the regime's ability to remain in
Internally, the insurgent movement started probing the government's
will and capabilities in the capital, sending a message to the state and the
citizenry alike that the regime is increasingly vulnerable, and the insurgents
are increasingly able to organize and carry out such bold attacks. The aim is
not to launch a full-scale urban war, but to continue to demoralize the regime's
supporters and to gain adherents to the rebels' cause. Government tank fire
against civilian neighborhoods in Damascus is likely to accelerate both aims.
The regime can no longer maintain the line that everything is calm
in Damascus where the people fully support the government of President Bashar
Assad. It is clear from many recent small demonstrations, and now from the
organized attacks, that support for the anti-regime insurgents exists inside the
capital. It will only manifest itself more overtly once this threshold of
military confrontations in the city has been crossed.
Regionally, the Moroccan government's expulsion of the Syrian
ambassador, followed by the reciprocal expulsion of Rabat's envoy in Damascus,
is another small sign of the continuing isolation of Syria in the Middle East.
The Moroccan move in itself is not a game-changer, but it continues the steady
deterioration of Damascus' position in the region, where most countries are now
backing efforts to remove the Assad regime and seek a transition to a more
legitimate and humane form of government.
The strong and sustained Arab political offensive against the Assad
regime has always been one of the key pillars of support for the insurgents who
want to remove Assad and his clan from power. An early decisive diplomatic
moment in this saga was when the Arab League last November suspended Syrian
membership and called for sanctions if Damascus did not respond to the Arab
League peace plan. Arab support for the opposition has only increased steadily
since then, including arming and funding the Free Syrian Army that coordinates
many of the armed resistance groups in Syria.
Internationally, Syria faces mounting pressures from the United
Nations Security Council, with the latest American- and British-led moves this
week seeking to pass a resolution that would place the stalled Kofi Annan plan
for a political transition in Syria under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which
provides much more muscle for those who want to lean harder on Syria. Russian
and Iranian moves to support the Assad regime appear increasingly defensive and
listless. The Russians accusing the Western powers of using blackmail against it
in the UN is like Madonna accusing Lady Gaga of wearing inappropriately
revealing clothing; and the Iranian offer to speak to Syrian opposition leaders
about a dialogue with the Assad regime is a sign of other-worldly fantasies in
Tehran more than anything else.
The cumulative consequence of these and other developments --
notably several senior defections, and the Syrian opposition's ability to
control patches of territory inside the country -- represents another pivotal
moment in Syria. International diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have
reached a dead end. The armed opposition has reached the point where it can
harass and provoke the regime virtually at will across the country. The
integrity of the regime's core strengths have started to fray at the edges.
The May 2011 incident of Hamza Khatib's death by torture propelled
the anti-Assad revolt onto a nationwide scale; this week's developments
similarly move the conflict forward, by refocusing attention on the increasingly
brittle and more vulnerable bases of the regime's support.
Rami G. Khouri