The news coming out of Syria on Sunday was horrific in humanitarian terms. More than 100 people were killed in a single day of protests against the government, mainly in the city of Hama. The use of nail bombs was reported in a suburb of Damascus. A prominent tribal leader from Deir al-Zor was arrested, along with hundreds of other “ordinary people,” while there were reports that nearly 3,000 people have disappeared in the violence, which has claimed more than 1,600 lives – 1,700 lives at this point. In the evening, news emerged that the authorities were preventing people from performing a Muslim prayer special to Ramadan.
And aside from the humanitarian concerns, the news was nearly as horrific in political terms for the Syrian authorities. Damascus earned a chorus of strong condemnation from the United States, Germany, Italy and France. Conspiracy theorists might enjoy spinning tales about how this or that country is actively supporting and even orchestrating the popular protest movement in Syria, but in Washington, and other capitals, the policy reaction to the year of Arab revolutions has been slow – and where it was quick, in Libya, the decision has proven to be hasty and lacking long-term vision. But the international community does not have an inflexible stance on the situation in Syria; the countries sitting on the sidelines face more pressure to change their position, and the countries with a tougher stance will become that much tougher after a day like Sunday.
The Syrian authorities might believe themselves to be smarter than their domestic opposition, and the international community, but their latest moves have exhibited an embarrassing amount of shortsightedness. Anyone could have reminded them a few months ago that Ramadan was on the way. If they were having problems dealing with Friday protests, imagine what the military and intelligence bodies will face with a nightly challenge, in the form of gatherings every 24 hours during the month of fasting.
Perhaps the authorities believe they can get away with whatever they want if they single out a city like Hama for a brutal attack. But this isn’t 1982. Back then, the Muslim Brotherhood had engaged in acts of violence against representatives of the Baath Party, the government and the military. Back then, doctors, engineers and other educated elites were singled out for assassination by the Brotherhood’s militants.
In 2011, the battle is not between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s between the government and the people. It’s between the government and a number of cities. And suburbs. And villages.
President Bashar Assad has ordered that violence should not be used against protesters. Assad has said that the authorities want to engage in meaningful dialogue. He has placed blame on foreign elements for stoking the demonstrations.
None of these messages has generated significant support for Assad and the authorities, and the Syrian people are quickly losing their patience.