Syria is entering the bloodiest phase yet of its eight-month-old uprising. But is the death toll enough to bring down President Bashar al-Assad?
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 16, Syrian army defectors staged a daring raid on an Air Force Intelligence Directorate complex on the northern edge of Damascus. Employing heavy weapons and machine guns, the attack not only shook the Syrian capital, it struck at the heart of the regime — the air force was former President Hafez al-Assad’s base of support when he seized control of the Syrian state in 1970 — and during the current unrest its intelligence services have been used to squelch dissent within the armed services. Though helicopters circled above the area and gunfire was heard throughout the neighborhood, Syrian state media made no mention of the assault.
The attack punctuated what is shaping up to be Syria’s bloodiest month yet — and perhaps a turning point in the eight-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. As Syrian army defectors targeted symbols of government power, the regime has continued its crackdown on peaceful protesters, notably in the restive city of Homs and the governorate of Hama. With the violencing threatening to spiral out of control, the Turkish prime minister called on the world to “hear the screams” of Syrians and international efforts to find a resolution to the crisis have increased.
The Assad regime, which finds itself increasingly isolated internationally, may be doubling down on repressive measures in an attempt to gain the upper hand against its foes. With the Arab League poised to suspend Syrian membership into the organization, Assad has increasingly few friends to placate by keeping casualties low.
It wasn’t always this way. Violence surged in April, driven by an assault on the southern town of Deraa — the first major center of revolt — and subsequent attacks by Syrian security forces on mourners at funeral processions for slain protesters. But over the summer — despite a pre-Ramadan assault on the protest hub of Hama and the shelling by tanks and warships of demonstrators in the port city of Latakia — the Assad regime managed to bring casualties down significantly. Since August, however, deaths have crept higher once again. If current trends continue, a whopping 800 people may lose their lives in Syria this month.
For more: Read “Measuring Syria’s Violence,” an explanation of how FP compiled this data.
As the Syrian revolution has stretched on, the nature of the protest movement has also changed. In the early months, demonstrations primarily occurred on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, as Syrians organized at mosques before taking to the streets en masse. The explosive nature of these weekly protests was immortalized in a drawing by Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, who sketched Assad cringing as he turned the calendar to another Friday.
The protests, however, are no longer exclusive to Fridays. As anti-Assad activists’ methods of coordination have improved, Syrians have found ways to organize outside of the mosque. Where the risk of a crackdown remains great, Syrians have protested at night — here, for example, in the city of Idlib — to avoid identification. In other cases, such as this demonstration in the heart of Damascus, Syrians have organized flash protests that move quickly through a neighborhood to avoid capture before government forces can mobilize.
As the protests have spread from Fridays throughout the week, the risk of being a victim of violence in Syria is also no longer confined to a single day. During the first three months of the protest movement, the number of Syrians killed on Fridays accounted for over 40 percent of the total death toll. From August through mid-November, however, only around 20 percent deaths have been recorded on Friday. In other words, Friday isn’t the only day that should make Assad cringe.
The death toll in Syria is breathtaking: Over the past eight months, more Syrians have lost their lives than the number of Palestinians killed over four years of the Second Intifada. The casualty count is now roughly equivalent to the number of U.S. soldiers killed during the entire Iraq war. And the violence shows no sign of letting up. (The civilian death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is measured in the tens and hundreds of thousands, would dwarf all of these figures if included in this chart).
When compared to the other Arab Spring uprisings, only Libya — which was wracked by a full-fledged civil war and a NATO-led bombing campaign — has seen more bloodletting than Syria. While Egypt and Tunisia did experience spasms of violence, the death toll was limited by the fact that protesters were able to quickly overcome the ruling regimes and re-establish some semblance of order. In Bahrain, the opposite was true: The monarchy’s success in crushing the street protests prevented a longer, potentially more violent uprising and crackdown. (The bloodshed in Yemen is likely the closest equivalent to that in Syria, but no comprehensive casualty statistics exist there. A Yemeni official said in October that 1,480 people had been killed from the time the unrest began in February to Sept. 25.)
Assad’s crackdown has appalled the international community, fractured his alliances, and spurred domestic rage that threatens to topple his regime and tear his country apart. And it looks to get worse before it gets any better.