At least 15 people were killed on August 5 by security forces cracking down on protests in cities and towns throughout Syria, the August 6 Gulf News said.
Escalating protests and government violence have marked every Friday since the Arab Spring reached Syria in March. But government violence has escalated since the military’s July 31 assault on the city of Hama, whose streets had been under the control of protesters since June.
Activists from the Local Coordination Committees said on August 5 that 300 people in Hama had been killed since July 31 by tanks and artillery, and in mass executions since the city fell on August 3, Reuters reported.
An anonymous Hama resident told AP on August 6: “People are being slaughtered like sheep while walking in the street … I saw with my own eyes one young boy on a motorcycle who was carrying vegetables being run over by a tank.”
The resident claimed the dead were being left in the streets or buried in people’s gardens “because we fear that if we go to the cemetery, we will end up buried along with them”.
Wissam Tarif, of the United States-based NGO Avaaz, told the August 6 Washington Post that a Hama doctor had told him he had seen large numbers of bodies that had been shot in the head at close range, suggesting they had been executed.
“He doesn’t know if they are random executions or if they are targeting known activists,” Tarif said.
Qantara.de said on August 3: “The government say 1500 civilians and 350 members of the security forces have been killed.”
The Ba’ath Party government of Bashar al-Assad has maintained that the violence is the work of terrorists and “armed gangs” who have hijacked the protests. The protesters have maintained they are entirely peaceful, although some security force members have been killed.
Syrian television has shown images of protesters carrying guns.
A July 13 International Crisis Group report said: “More plausibly, criminal networks, some armed Islamist groups, elements supported from outside and some demonstrators acting in self defence have taken up arms. But that is a marginal piece of the story.
“The vast majority of casualties have been peaceful protesters, and the vast majority of the violence has been perpetrated by the security services.”
The regime has also suggested religious sectarianism is behind the opposition. The Western media do not generally echo Syrian regime propaganda, but on this point they have — reflexively seeing events in the Middle East through the prism of religion.
Assad is from the Alawi religious minority and the regime has historically drawn support from religious minority communities alarmed at the prospect of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism.
An anti-regime uprising in Hama in 1982, partially inspired by Sunni Islamist groups, was brutally crushed by the regime, then led by Hefaz al-Assad (Bashar’s father).
Hama was partially demolished and 30,000 people killed.
There are Islamist trends in the opposition, but Syrian dissident and Professor of Political Sociology at the Sorbonne Burhan Ghalyoun said in a July 13 interview with Qantara.de that secular trends predominate.
“There are minorities within these sects who hold sectarian grudges and understandings,” Ghalyoun said. “However, the majority of Syrians and members of all of the country’s sects want to get rid of a regime of violence, revenge, and murder …
“If we look at the revolution’s slogans and at the behaviour of revolutionaries, we see that they have thus far resisted all sectarian incitements. This confirms that the Syrian people want unity, freedom, and a civilian state.”
He said the regime's violence was alienating middle-class sectors that had previously supported it.
“Here, we are speaking of businessmen, professionals, manufacturers, and economists. The livelihoods of these people require stability, and they believe that the Assad regime secures this stability.”
Ghalyoun said he believed “we are moving towards a new phase during which the silent group is becoming convinced that it is impossible to guarantee stability by returning to the old system”.
Western leaders have passionately denounced the Syrian crackdown.
French foreign minister Alain Juppe described an August 3 United Nations Security Council statement condemning Syria as “a turning point in the attitude of the international community”.
In fact, the UN Security Council statement was non-binding and sanctions imposed by the US and European Union (EU) have been called inadequate by the Syrian opposition.
The August 4 British Telegraph said: “Although the European Union announced it was tightening sanctions against key power brokers in the regime, it stopped short of targeting Syria’s oil sector from where the Assad regime draws most of its revenues.
“Syria’s opposition said it had hoped that a UN resolution would lead to oil sanctions and a referral of Mr Assad to the International Criminal Court and a sense of betrayal was now growing after that opportunity was missed.”
New US sanctions “did not target Syria’s energy sector, something administration officials had repeatedly suggested was coming,” the August 5 British Telegraph said.
“Officials said those sanctions, which are expected to hit state-owned and state-affiliated oil and gas companies that are a leading revenue source for the government, are still in the works and could be unveiled in coming days.”
The underwhelming Western response is in contrast to the NATO military intervention in Libya.
Assad and his father, like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, have been at different times allied to, and antagonistic toward, the West.
However, Syria’s relationship with West has worsened over the past decade, particularly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006.
Libya and the West had, until this year, been undergoing a rapprochement.
This suggests the decision to attack Libya was largely opportunistic. In Syria, there are no generals defecting from the regime and calling for Western intervention.
Syrian dissidents have called for tougher economic sanctions from the West, but Ghalyoun said: “There is no opposition force calling for military intervention.”
Syria is host to large numbers of refugees who have fled the various waves of violence that have engulfed Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. The West is aware that Syrians have good reason to be hostile to any military intervention.
The West’s surprising lack of enthusiasm for regime change in Syria reflects an awareness that a post-Assad Syria is not guaranteed to be more friendly to the West.
The Western sanctions that were imposed in 2004 were not designed to overthrow the Assad regime, but to pressure it to cease giving aid to Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements.
Assad has used support for these movements to gain leverage with the West, but he has also provided Israel with a secure border.
The Syrian regime is now reminding the West of this.
Ghalyoun said Assad’s cousin and crony, Rami Makhlouf, “one of the regime’s pillars, stated that the security and stability of Israel is tied to the stability of Syria’s current regime”.
The Syrian regime has provided refuge to Palestinians affiliated to several groups. However, it has sponsored a particular splinter faction that, in collaboration with Syrian authorities, controls Palestinian refugee camps in Syria.
Ghalyoun explained: “Contrary to some impressions, the camps and the Palestinian people present in Syria and other parts of the world are sympathetic to the Syrian revolution.
“Of course, there are organisations or sides working under the Syrian security apparatus ... But the incident there was an affirmative indicator of Palestinians’ support for the Syrian people.”
Ghalyoun acknowledged that some of the Arab and international left supported the Assad regime because of its professed opposition to Israel.
However, he said in a post-Assad Syria, “Palestinians and Syrians will be one hand. There is no danger for the Palestinian cause in the shadow of a democratic Syrian system.
“The Syrian people are closest to the Palestinian people, and they are more protective of the Palestinian cause, the Golan Heights and Arab solidarity than the current regime, whose leaders have made the country feudal and do not care for anything except for protecting their own interests and existence.”
A Western military attack may not be imminent, but this could change if Assad attempting to remain in power becomes a catalyst for Syria disintegrating.
The historical antipathy between the Syrian regime and the West means the violence against the Syrian protesters is acknowledged and condemned by Western politicians and media.
This contrasts with Bahrain.
Since the Western-backed invasion of the gulf state by Saudi Arabia on March 15 to defend the Bahraini monarchy from a non-violent democracy movement, a grim catalogue of disappearances, torture, rape, extrajudicial killings and show trials has gone largely unreported.
The July 28 raid on the Bahrain offices of medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and detention of Bahraini MSF volunteer Saeed Mahdi was briefly in the news.
In fact, the targeting of health workers for treating victims of repression has been a standard tactic of the Bahraini security forces and the Saudi occupiers.
In an opinion piece in the August 4 British Telegraph, retired lieutenant general Peter Pearson, former deputy commander of NATO’s Southern Command, explained Britain's interest in propping up Bahrain's brutal regime: “Our alliance with the ruling Al Khalifa family makes them Britain’s oldest ally in the Gulf with a shared interest in containing Persian influence in the region.
“For many years, Bahrain was a British protectorate, serving as a vital staging post to India and the Far East. The relationship continued after Bahrain became independent in 1971.
“The most Anglophile country in the Middle East, Bahrain has always given unstinting support for the UK’s military activities, most recently during the war in Afghanistan. As the base for the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain provides a key military facility in containing Iran.”