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The guns of February

Keenan Duffey | Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Russian and Chinese U.N. delegations vetoed a U.N. resolution which called for a “Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system” earlier this month. This has kicked off a new chapter in the Syrian conflict that might push it into an outright civil war. Bashar Al-Assad has been assured that there will likely be no international intervention against him and his increasingly militant tactics for quelling the rebellion in Syria.

This is not the first time that the Assad regime has faced serious internal rebellion. In the early 1980’s, President Hafez Al-Assad faced a similar rebellion and used ruthless methods to eliminate his enemies. This was when Hafez carried out the now infamous “Hama Massacre” against the rebel stronghold of Hama. The Syrian military is now massing near Homs, the epicenter of current Syrian resistance. The military appears to be on the brink of launching a massive military campaign against Homs, just like Bashar’s father in Hama.

 In 1982, Hafez faced an uprising led by Sunni religious leaders who despised Hafez’s authoritarian regime and the way in which the regime favored the president’s Alawite sect over the majority Sunni sect. The city of Hama was the epicenter of this Sunni-led resistance. Hafez Al-Assad, in response, dispatched his brother to lead some 12,000 troops armed with tanks and artillery to initiate a siege of the city. What ensued was the systematic extermination of the Hama-based Sunni resistance. Hafez and his brother Rifaat, to ensure the total elimination of the Sunni resistance, utilized mass executions, artillery shelling and ignited the sewer system to ensure no one escaped. This month, eerily, marks 20 years since the “Hama Massacre,” which resulted in the deaths of between 10,000 and 25,000 Syrians.

The parallels between Hafez Al-Assad’s massacre and the looming massacre in Homs are chilling. Bashar, like Hafez before him, faces unprecedented civilian unrest and most of the protests are still aimed at the disproportionate amount of power Alawites retain in the government. The Sunni majority is once again calling for representation in the Syrian government. The majority has tired of minority rule. The phone lines and internet connections in and out of Homs have been severed and the situation in Homs remains unclear. Like the massacre of Hama, we may not know about it until after Homs has been razed and the optimism of the rebels is shelled back into fear.

The move by Russia and China to veto a U.N. resolution has mitigated growing international pressure on the Assad regime. Bashar has carte blanche to put down the rebellion by any means. The presence of Arab League observers has been meaningless. The UN was the last international institution that had a chance to effect a change in the Syrian government’s tactics.

The United States has recently demonstrated a willingness to intervene to prevent civilian slaughter, even in an auxiliary role. The success of the Libya mission, however, has not emboldened the United States or its Western European allies to intervene in Syria. This is probably because Russia sees Syria as indispensable and no country wants to come directly between Moscow and Damascus when the political benefits would be limited. China is supporting Russia because the Chinese see the Russians as partners against the influence of the Western Europeans and Americans in foreign affairs. 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia is embracing a realpolitik Cold War mentality. It seems that Russia and China are putting regional partnerships above human rights in Syria.

America’s options, now that an effective U.N. resolution has been vetoed, are limited. The U.S. could attempt to indirectly arm the resistance groups. Sen. John McCain has recently spoken in favor of this strategy. The effort, while well intentioned, would likely induce a stalemate similar to Libya, and would require international intervention to succeed. With limited options, we must now wait and hope Bashar proves to be the moderate that he so often projects himself to be. If not, we may be on the verge of witnessing a Hama-like massacre in Homs. Like father, like son.

Keenan Duffey is a senior. He can be reached at kduffey1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.