New Media Holds Back Assad’s Crackdown

March 26th, 2011 at 12:55 pm | 3 Comments |

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The traditional rules of engagement between the Syrian regime and its opponents have been suspended.

The Carthaginian devastation visited upon Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city, by the Baathist government of Hafiz al-Assad following an abortive 1982 Islamist uprising had long been emblematic of the regime’s mail-fisted approach to dissent.

The leveling of that city by Syrian artillery was a pour encourager les autres-type exercise in quite literal overkill. Hama became synonymous with the institutionalized ruthlessness of a regime dependent on the army, the police and as many as 15 different security services to maintain its monopoly on power.

Now confronted with the first major challenge to Baathist rule in decades, Hafiz al-Assad’s son and successor Bashar has not declared unconditional warfare on his own people. Doubtless he has been urged to unleash the full might of his military and fearsome security services on protesters by some of the apparatchiks who administer his police state. It will be their reflex instinct.

However, Assad has opted for an entirely more proportionate response. The severity of his counter-measures remains restrained –by Syrian standards — in the face of a growing insurgency demanding political reforms and the reinstatement of civil rights and liberties.

The deployment of an armored division to Daraa at the weekend was a show of force intended to demonstrate the city could go the way of Hama. But the regime’s big guns continue to remain silent even though small-arms fire is increasingly being heard there as well as in other centers of rioting.

A regime which slaughtered an estimated 25,000 Syrians at Hama and executed 10,000 dissenters in the decade following  now has no choice but to take an uncharacteristically measured approach to country-wide anti-regime demonstrations. Lethal force is certainly being used — dozens of protesters have been killed since rallies against ‘injustice and repression’ began in January. But the death toll is not on the operatic scale which might once have been expected.

Assad’s hand is being stayed not because he is any more merciful than his father (he isn’t) but because he’s improvising a survival strategy which is hyper-sensitive to Arab and international opinion. The ruthless old orthodoxies of his father’s day no longer apply in the new media age. Hama was destroyed off-camera.  State efforts at censorship notwithstanding, modern revolutions can and will be televised, webcast and Tweeted given the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of social networks sites, smartphones and tablet computers.

And webcammed bloodbaths, as Assad has learned, do not play either on the Arab street or before global audiences.

When Muammar Qaddafi used mass slaughter as both a tactic and his entire strategy for combating Libya’s insurrection, he invited a punitive international response because the world was watching events unfold live and in living color on TVs, computer monitors and BlackBerries.

His preferred take-no-prisoners counter-insurgency measures are now off-limits to Assad and will likely remain so even if the scattered unrest he faces shows signs of coalescing into an organized and cohesive movement. And this is almost certainly already happening. All of the supposedly spontaneous Middle Eastern popular uprisings of recent months were organized and strategized to some degree by way of social networking. It’s unthinkable Syrians, who enjoy one of the highest Internet-penetration rates in the region, aren’t availing themselves of this weapon as their chapter in the new Arab Revolt unfolds.

Assad will know this. He’s perhaps the world’s only webhead of state. As president of the Syrian Computer Society –the one public position he held before being abruptly promoted from spare to heir-apparent following brother Basil’s death –Assad helped to introduce the Internet to his benighted country.

Since succeeding his father as president in 2000, he has presided over a series of increasingly harsh restrictions on its use. However, Assad is aware Syrians routinely evade state firewalls blocking YouTube, Wikipedia and other forbidden sites by using international proxy servers. The protests he faces were inspired by the largely bloodless Arab Spring awakenings in Tunisia and Egypt, uprisings his people followed on the ‘Net not in Syria’s state-controlled media. Last month one of his first concessions to those demanding liberalization of the arbitrary “emergency laws” Syria has been ruled by since 1963 was to lift a five-year official ban on Facebook (fear of “Israeli infiltration” was one of the official rationalizations for denying access).

While still attempting to enforce a media blackout and keep the world blind to his country’s upheavals, Assad knows any scenes of unchecked aggression against demonstrators would bleed out onto the Internet and television screens. Demands for his ouster would go viral as quickly as YouTube videos of wholesale carnage in Syria.

The Damascus-Tehran axis has been a centerpiece of Syrian foreign policy since he assumed power, an alliance intent on establishing a joint hegemony extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Adventurism and terrorism predicated on destabilizing other Arab regimes and subverting the regional balance of power has made Assad quite as despised by his neighbors as Qaddafi.  Any reversion to true   form now in terms of an unchecked counter-insurgency campaign would almost certainly draw Qaddafi -type pan-Arab condemnation.  Outside intervention, while unlikely, is not entirely unthinkable.

Assad is attempting to quell the unrest by launching what amounts to a fits-and-starts reform program in conjunction with his low-intensity crackdown. Whether this strategy will be sufficient to keep him in office and maintain the iron Baathist grip on power remains to be seen. But at the very least it’s time for Assad to post a status update. One to the effect the old rules are no longer in play.


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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Traveler

    New media, or new spine?

    “When Muammar Qaddafi used mass slaughter as both a tactic and his entire strategy for combating Libya’s insurrection, he invited a punitive international response because the world was watching events unfold live and in living color on TVs, computer monitors and BlackBerries.

    His preferred take-no-prisoners counter-insurgency measures are now off-limits to Assad and will likely remain so…”

    Amazing what a coherent international response can do, when supported by the now credible threat of force by way of a duly debated UN resolution.

    • hisgirlfriday

      But couldn’t you also say new media has played a huge part in forcing foreign powers to develop a coherent international response? Because thanks to the new media they can’t just bury their heads in the sand and claim to their constituents back home “if only we knew…” after the slaughter is over the way they used to.

  • TJ Parker

    “New Media Holds Back Assad’s Crackdown”

    You did that on purpose.