To survive, Assad must stop Sunni unrest infecting army


The protest against Bashar Assad’s regime is swelling. From its first epicenter in the southern town of Deraa it spread Friday, March 25, to new cities, Homs, Aleppo, Latakia and parts of Damascus. It has quickly attained the scale unforeseen by the regime of

a popular uprising by the majority Sunni population (74 percent) against Allawite-dominated (15 percent) rule.

Army troops gunned the protesters down in what witnesses described as a massacre of scores and hundreds injured, raising calls from the opposition for international intervention.

The number of dead and injured cannot be reliably determined. debkafile’s intelligence sources report that special Syrian security clean-up units removed the bodies as they fell.

The authorities were caught unawares by the upsurge of street rallies that followed preachers’ sermons in hundreds of Sunni mosques calling on their congregations to go out and drive the Assads and the minority Allawite sect from power. The Syrian secret service missed the Muslim Brotherhood’s hand in organizing this mass street eruption. The strongest rallying cry came from the influential radical Egyptian television preacher Yussuf Qaradawi who called on Syria’s Sunni community to stand up for its rights as a majority.

Because the army’s 4th Division commanded by Bashar’s brother Maher Assad, the only unit to be manned by Allawites, is tied down in suppressing riots in the southern town of Deraa and most of the troops in all other units are Sunnis, Assad is short of trusted contingents to defend his regime. He figured that fresh outbreaks in Deraa would inflame the rest of the country and therefore kept the 4th Division in place.
But the outbreaks spread to other key cities anyway under slogans calling for solidarity with the martyrs of Deraa and threatening his power centers in Damascus and beyond.

Neither the conciliatory measures announced on Thursday nor the security crackdown against protesters has succeeded in stifling dissent and defusing the crisis.

Defiancecontinues in Deraa itself even after demonstrators were gunned down with live bullets. The al-Omari mosque, which was stormed by security forces on Tuesday night, was reported to be back in the hands of protesters.The mosque has been the focal point of dissent in Deraa.

The tipping point for the 11-year old Assad regime (which followed the one his father established after a military coup) is therefore not far off unless he makes the right decision or receives outside help.

He can either opt for the Qaddafi option, for instance, or follow the example of the King of Bahrain.

From the outset of the Libya revolt in February, Muammar Qaddafi opted for abandoning the east and focusing his military effort on preserving his centers of power in Tripoli and its outlying towns. After stabilizing his rule, he planned to set out and wrest the rest of the country from the rebels opposing his regime.

So far, his gamble has succeeded. The rebels backed by international forces have not unseated him.

Will Assad decide after Friday that he has enough loyal military strength to buttress his rule over all of Syria, or choose to pull in his horns and concentrate on saving Damascus?

Since much of his army is unreliable, the Syrian ruler may have to opt for the Bahrain remedy – namely, calling for outside help as did King Hamid al Khalifa who asked Riyadh for Saudi forces to prop up his throne against a Shiite-led uprising.

The allies who come to mind in the case of Assad are Iran, the Lebanese Hizballah, pro-Iranian Palestinian groups with bases in Damascus – Hamas, Jihad Islami and Ahmad Jibril’s Popular Palestinian Front-General Command.

It would take Tehran no more than a few hours to fly Revolutionary Guards units into Damascus. An Iranian command structure is already positioned at Syrian armed forces headquarters in Damascus. Also available to Tehran is an Iraqi Shiite militia, the Mehdi Army of the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, a good personal friend both of Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Assad. 
Saturday, there was widespread speculation that Tehran would do its utmost to rescue the Syrian ruler who only recently opened the port of Latakia for an Iranian base.

Giving Hizballah a foothold in Syria is more complicated given the unstated competition between him and the Syrian ruler and the latter’s reservations about the former’s rising military strength and effective secret and terrorist capabilities. Assad would undoubtedly take into account that once Hizballah gained a foothold in Syria, it would be hard to dislodge.

Putting the fate of the Assad regime in the hands of radical Palestinian organizations would be equally imprudent and, worse, a humiliation.

It would give Palestinians their second open door to an Arab uprising, the first of which gave Hamas undreamed of leverage in Egypt.

Assad may even stage an attack on Israel as a desperate diversionary tactic from his troubles.

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