Assad talks of ‘war’ as rebels hit vital TV centre
The Syrian dictator says his country is now ‘in a state of war.’ Rebels are closing in on the capital. Army morale is collapsing. Allies are falling away. Is it all over for Bashar al Assad?
When Bashar al Assad faced protests against his regime last year, he chose to respond not with reform but with repression. He calculated that by sending heavily armed soldiers against peaceful protesters he could kill and torture his way back to stability and control.
Now, it appears, the Syrian dictator may be wondering what he has let himself in for. In a speech this week, Assad told supporters: ‘we live in a real state of war, from all angles.’
On this point, at least, foreign observers are beginning to agree with him. Over months of bitter and vicious fighting, Assad has alienated his allies, hardened the local opposition and disgusted the international community. The unrest in Syria now looks like a real war – one that Assad may find impossible to win.
Yesterday morning, for example, Assad’s fears were dramatically confirmed, when armed fighters stormed and destroyed the headquarters of a pro-regime TV station. Officials blamed rebels, but the truth may be even more alarming for Assad’s supporters. According to opposition figures, the raid was carried out not by rebels but by defectors from Assad’s elite Republican Guard, who turned against the dictator.
Certainly, morale in Assad’s army is collapsing. Over the last week, a general, two colonels and – most embarrassingly – a fighter pilot with his jet have all joined the rebel cause. And even those who pretend loyalty often fail to carry out orders.
According to one analyst, Syrian helicopter pilots have been seen deliberately missing targets and flying badly to sabotage their own missions.
Of course, each soldier leaving Assad’s service strengthens the rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army. In the past, they have been unable to resist heavily armed government forces. Now, however, they are slowly starting to carve out some territory of their own.
This new success is driven partly by improved tactics and partly by the inflow of heavier weapons from Turkey and the Gulf States. The Turks are furious with Assad, after Syrian air defences shot down an unarmed Turkish jet last week. They have summoned a special NATO meeting to discuss a response. International intervention cannot now be ruled out.
A long fight
Many analysts now think Assad is doomed. His men are refusing to fight for him. His enemies are gathering strength. Even his foreign allies, Iran and Russia, seem to have quietly given up hope.
But others warn that Assad will not go easily. He has faced huge challenges over the last year, but each time, he has responded the same way: with more and deadlier violence.
- Imagine you are a helicopter pilot in Assad’s army, ordered to fire missiles into a rebel-held town. If you obey, civilians may die. If you disobey, your life and the lives of your family will be threatened by the secret police. What do you do?
- Which is a more effective way of getting rid of a dictator: violence or peaceful protest?
- Imagine you had a chance to write an email directly to Bashar al Assad. Write down what you would say.
- List, in order of importance, the things an army should have in order to win a war. Compare your list with others in the class.
Some People Say...
“In war, there are no real heroes or villains.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- This unrest in Syria has been going on for ages no?
- It has, but lately the conflict seems to have entered a new phase: more violent and volatile than before. Also, the fighting looks more likely than before to suck in other countries.
- Why’s that?
- The downing of the Turkish jet by Syrian air defences is a fairly big deal. Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance, which means – strictly speaking – that if it is attacked, all other NATO members must fight to defend it.
- And who are the other NATO members?
- Most countries in Western Europe for a start, plus many in Eastern Europe, the UK, USA, Canada, Iceland, the list goes on.
- He calculated
- The decision to use violence rather than diplomacy is a grim tradition in the Assad family. When Sunni Muslims rose up against Assad’s father thirty years ago, he sent in the tanks, flattening the town of Hama and killing around 10,000 people, mainly civilians.
- Disgusted the international community
- There was widespread outrage recently as reports emerged of a horrifying massacre in the town of Houla, in which dozens of young children were shot or stabbed to death. UN investigators recently confirmed that the evidence points to government forces as the killers.
- Shot down
- Syrian officials say the Turkish jet had invaded Syrian airspace. Turks say it was flying over international waters. Either way, the accepted procedure in such cases is to issue a warning, not just fire off a surface-to-air missile.
- International intervention
- Any intervention in Syria would likely be very limited, as Western militaries are overstretched as it is. The only plausible scenario is one in which foreign air power is used to create safe zones for rebels, protected from Assad’s tanks and helicopters.
- Foreign allies
- Iran has long supported Syria as an ally against Israel, Saudi Arabia and the West. Russia, meanwhile, counts Syria as its last remaining friend in the Middle East. The Syrian port of Tartus is an important base for Russian navy ships.