- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
It’s Friday, and once again there were major protests throughout Syria. Reuters reported at least 16 people were killed, including a teenage boy. Protests have become a weekly occurrence, and the numbers being reported are startling. Al Jazeera cites an eyewitness claiming 150,000 people came out in Hama, the country’s fourth largest city and the site of a massacre in 1982 that left at least 10,000 dead. If Al Jazeera’s number is accurate, that would mean almost a quarter of the city’s population was out in the streets.
The Syrian regime’s response today has also been dramatic. Tanks and armored personnel carriers swept into two key towns in the north– places that sit on the road linking Damascus and Aleppo. The government called it a "limited military operation" to restore order.
Here’s video of the large crowds in Hama:
And video of protesters setting fire to the Russian and Iranian flags:
A couple of key things to watch:
Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been a steady ally of Assad’s government. But the relationship has cooled and might be heading for a breaking point, as thousands of Syrian refugees continue to flood into Turkey. Last week, Erdogan called Syria’s crackdown "savagery."
"Syria had two friends. One was Erdogan and the other is the Iranians," Henri Barkey, a Turkey scholar at Lehigh University told Passport. "They have lost Erdogan. Erdogan tried to convince Bashar from the beginning to reform, lift the state of emergency, release political prisoners, but Bashar didn’t listen to him."
Barkey said the Turks feel slighted. They threw the Syrian regime a lifeline at a time when it was being pressured by the Europeans and the Americans, and Erdogan expected to have more of a say with Assad now.
So what does this all mean?
According to Barkey, if the United States plays its cards right, there’s an opportunity to let the Turks take the lead in dealing with Syria and possibly even do what Washington probably won’t be able to– persuade the Russians to back a U.N. Security Council Resolution against Syria that actually has teeth. That’s far from certain, but Erdogan, who prides himself on being at the forefront of history, might soon be ready to take up that charge.
The end of Rami Makhlouf?
The Syrian business tycoon and cousin of Assad publicly "resigned" on state TV late Thursday from his various business ventures, including as head of the country’s main cell phone company. The fact that the regime is willing to toss out someone seen as especially close to Assad is an indication it understands it needs to do more than it’s been doing, said Rob Malley a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group. The move can be seen as a gesture to the population, which overwhelmingly wanted Makhlouf gone.
Makhlouf’s image was tarnished within Syria after an interview with the New York Times last month in which he said the government would fight to the end to survive and that "if there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel."
The Jolie Factor
Hollywood do-gooder Angelina Jolie met with Syrian refugees in Turkey today. Though there are fewer than 10,000 of them so far, Jolie could help their plight become a cause célèbre and push governments to take stronger action against the Syrian regime. Look for an increase in press coverage of the refugee crisis in the wake of her visit. Though the scale is much lower than other refugee crises around the world, sympathy for the Syrians fighting inside the country and those fleeing from the conflict will likely grow. A crisis needs a compelling narrative to get attention. And a crisis needs the world’s attention to move the needle of world powers.
All in all, it’s been a bad day for Bashar Assad.