Discarding any attempt to distinguish between friend and foe, the Syrian army savagely attacked the Khaldiyeh quarter of the city at 10 p.m. Friday night. Over the next five hours, tank cannons and heavy mortars fired hundreds of shells at Khaldiyeh, and the neighborhoods of Baba Amr and Bab al-Sebaa, collapsing buildings on top of their wailing residents, burying many of them alive. The army’s targets included a makeshift medical clinic. As of Monday morning, human rights groups estimated that more than 300 people had been killed since the attack began, including many women and children. Some of the bodies were left lying in the street because residents considered it too dangerous to go outside to try to collect them.
Hundreds more were wounded, but few were able to reach the city’s hospitals, which were already overflowing with casualties. Instead, the wounded were being treated in makeshift field hospitals, without proper facilities to treat those with head and chest injuries.
There were also reports that armed pro-Assad thugs had removed the dead and injured from one hospital near Khaldiyeh in order to hide evidence of the government offensive.
On Monday, Arab satellite news stations showed live footage of Homs with smoke rising from buildings and the sound of explosions over parts of the city. On Tuesday, Western news networks showed more home video footage of the carnage, complete with heart-rending pleas from Homs residents for help from the rest of the world.
Rami Abdulrahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, called the army’s assault on Homs the bloodiest day in Syria since the revolt began last March 19.
US CLOSES ITS EMBASSY
The growing violence throughout Syria prompted the US to close its embassy in Syria on Monday and to remove its staff from the country.
Britain also recalled its ambassador to Syria. Its foreign secretary, William Hague, joined the US in calling for Assad to step down as Syrian president. He told the House of Commons, “This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime. There is no way it can recover its credibility internationally.”
HIS FATHER’S SON
The attack on Homs came on the 30th anniversary of one of the most notorious episodes in the modern history of the Middle East. In February, 1982, Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, ordered the Syrian army to level the Sunni Muslim neighborhood in the Syrian city of Hama in a brutal effort to crush an Islamic revolt against his rule. Three weeks of artillery fire by Syrian tanks pounded the old city of Hama into rubble. As in the current fighting in Syria, the total number of people killed in Hama 30 years ago is still unknown. Estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000 people.
The irony is that when Bashar Assad came to power after his father’s death in 2000, he was welcomed as a reformer, with a Western education who promised to modernize Syria’s government and society. He never fulfilled those promises, but until the revolt against his rule began last year, the West generally was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The younger Assad, who allowed opposition intellectuals to express their opinions during the early days of his rule and brought the Internet to his country, is now proving to be as much a butcher as his father, keen to maintain his family’s power at any price.
After word came of the attack on Homs, President Obama issued an angry statement saying, “Thirty years after his father massacred tens of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women and children in Hama, Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated a similar disdain for human life and dignity. We owe it to the victims of Hama and Homs to learn one lesson: that cruelty must be confronted for the sake of justice and human dignity. The suffering citizens of Syria must know: we are with you, and the Assad regime must come to an end.” However, with the Security Council deadlocked, it is not clear that Obama is willing to do anything more to help the Syrian people beyond spouting his empty rhetoric.
ASSAD REGIME NOW AN INTERNATIONAL PARIAH
The failure of the Security Council resolution followed the collapse last week of efforts by the Arab League to get the Assad government to accept its peace plan which called for an orderly transition and transfer of power to a national unity government. The sharp increase in the level of violence prompted the Arab League last week to suspend the efforts of its observers who were sent to Syria to monitor a cease fire agreement which the Assad regime accepted to back in November, but which it never intended to implement.
Assad’s brutal tactics to suppress the opposition have alienated him even from his longtime colleagues in the Arab world. With the departure of the Arab League observers, and the absence of international reporters, there is no way to verify reports about the fighting coming out of the country from opposition figures and human rights activists. One thing is clear. The official Syrian government reports on the conflict have long since lost all credibility.
The humanitarian situation in Syria has become so bad that the UN and other human rights organizations have given up trying to estimate the total number of casualties since the fighting began in the south of the country last March. The count stop last month at somewhere between 5,400 and 6,000 deaths.
OUTRAGE AT RUSSIA AND CHINA
The Security Council veto sparked outrage against Russia and China in the international community. However, in the Syrian media, the Security Council’s vote was portrayed as a re-affirmation of the Assad regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of the world. This prompted Human Rights Watch, along with several Western and Arab diplomats, to warn Syria not to use the Russian and Chinese veto “as a green light for even more violence.” Others said that Assad’s continued survival as the ruler of Syria is now totally dependant upon his support from Russian Premiere Vladimir Putin.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said after the Security Council vote, “the United States is disgusted. A couple of members of this council [Russia and China] remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto by Russia and China “a travesty,” and said the US would renew efforts to stop the flow of arms to Assad’s regime. She declared that “those countries that refuse to support the Arab League plan, bear full responsibility for protecting the brutal regime in Damascus, and it is tragic that after all the work that the Security Council did, they had a 13-2 vote.”
She added that, “faced with a [neutralized] Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future. Assad must go.”
Clinton warned that without hope for a peaceful resolution, “many Syrians, under attack from their own government, are moving to defend themselves, which is to be expected.”
THE EFFORT TO FIND A COMPROMISE
Rice and other Western diplomats had spent weeks trying to come up with resolution language that backed an Arab League plan for a swift transition of power and free elections in Syria that the Russians could support.
At the end of last week, the US and its allies thought they had language the Russians would accept, but at the last minute, Putin’s government threw in a new demand. Russia insisted upon the removal of a call in the resolution for Syrian tanks and artillery to be taken off the streets of Syria’s cities, even though the Assad regime itself had accepted that demand in November.
At that same moment, Syrian tanks and heavy artillery were mercilessly bombarding the residents of Homs. This was too much for the US and its allies in the Security Council who refused to change the resolution and called for a vote. When Russia and China vetoed the resolution, they immediately found themselves condemned by the rest of the international community.
Britain’s UN ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said that by casting their vetoes, “Russia and China have today taken a choice: to turn their backs on the Arab world and to support tyranny rather than the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”
Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, rejected the widespread criticism of the veto by claiming that the United States and its allies were promoting “regime change” in Syria and “armed methods of struggle.”
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, also dismissed the criticisms of Russia’s veto as “indecent and perhaps on the verge of hysterical.”
THE DANGERS OF A SYRIAN CIVIL WAR
The defeat of the compromise resolution at the UN was the death knell of any hope to avert an all-out Syrian civil war. One of many dangers from the fighting in Syria is that it could easily degenerate into a nasty religious war between the Sunni majority backing the protesters and Assad’s Alawite minority, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
If the fighting in Syria continues to polarize along religious lines, it could spread to neighboring countries which suffer from similar internal tensions between rival religious communities, such as Lebanon and Iraq.
There is also a regional balance of power which could come into play if the fighting in Syria drags on. With strategic assistance from the Assad regime, Iran has sought in recent years to become the leading power in the Middle East, openly challenging the US and its regional allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Without Assad, Iran would lose much of its current ability to project its power across the region, including its ability to easily support and arm Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Russia has maintained its support for Assad for its own reasons unrelated to religion. It has viewed Syria as a client state since the days of the Cold War. Russian leaders like Vladimir Putin have always viewed the Middle East as part of Russia’s natural sphere of influence. Putin has therefore used his relationship with Assad and Iran as a counterbalance to the US and Western presence in the region. The Syrians have also been good clients for Russian-made arms, often paid for with Iranian oil money.
OBAMA BLAMING RUSSIA FOR HIS OWN FAILURE
The Obama administration is now trying to blame Russia and China for the current paralysis of its policy towards Syria. But the true culprit is Obama himself for giving the UN Security Council a veto over US foreign policy.
“This has been a slow-motion train wreck,” said David Schenker, an adviser to the Pentagon on the Middle East during the George W. Bush administration. “We aimed low, and we fell short.”
He added that, “if we continue to defer both to the Arab League and the UN, the Syrian people are doomed.”
While the UN approach worked last year in putting together a coalition to protect Libyan civilians from attacks by Muammar Gadhaffi, Obama should have known that Russia and China would not let themselves be talked into abstaining again when another one of their allies was threatened by a pro-democracy rebellion. Aside from their friendship and commercial ties with Iran, it made no sense to believe that either Russia or China, which are dealing with their own domestic pro-democracy protests, would set another Security Council precedent which could some day be used against them.
OBAMA STILL HESITATING
The right thing for Obama to do now would be to re-assert US foreign policy leadership by forming a Bush-style “coalition of the willing” to end the atrocities in Syria before Assad’s violent attempts to hang onto power plunge the entire region into chaos.
At this point, that should not be hard. Most of Europe, Turkey and even the other Arab states already agree with Obama that Assad must go. Under those circumstances, continued US inaction in the face of these atrocities is inexcusable and further undermines US credibility as the leader of the free world.
Yet Obama still hesitates. In an NBC interview Sunday, he said, “I think it is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention. I think that’s possible. The Assad regime is feeling the noose tightening around them. This is not going to be a matter of if, it’s going to be a matter of when.”
He denied that the situation in Syria today is comparable to the one in Libya which led to NATO intervention and suggested that it was sufficient for him as president to simply say “that it is time for Assad to go.”
AN ALTERNATIVE STRATEGY
A White House official echoed the same point, telling a reporter, “Look, don’t expect another Libya,” but then the official suggested an alternative which could accomplish the same goal. He noted that, “there is a growing danger that if the slaughter which Assad has been engaging in continues, others might step forward to aid the opposition,” meaning US allies in the region like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. They could serve as a proxy for the US, providing the Syrian rebels with money, arms and training while the US maintains a careful distance from the fighting.
One reason why the White House is being so careful to avoid direct involvement in Syria is because the regional politics regarding Assad’s fate is very different from that surrounding Mubarak or Gadhaffi. For Egypt and Libya, regime change was primarily an internal matter, but what happens in Syria will have an impact on the current regional power struggle between the US and its allies and Iran.
Iran has a huge stake in the maintaining the Assad regime, because its fall would cripple Iran’s regional strategy. In fact, Iran and Hezbollah have already quietly started to intervene in some of the fighting on Assad’s side. One of the reasons why the US does not wants take a more direct role in orchestrating Assad’s ouster, is because that could turn the Syrian rebellion into a Cold War Style proxy war, with the US and its allies backing the opposition against Assad’s government, backed by Iran and Russia.
ISRAEL ON THE SIDELINES
Meanwhile, in Israel, there are mixed emotions about what is going on in Syria right now. Israel has no love for the Assad regime, especially in its role as an ally of Iran and a supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas, but with few exceptions, Assad has kept the Syrian border with Israel very quiet over the past decade.
Israel also understands that it cannot intervene directly on either side in Syria. It learned that the hard way 30 years ago when it tried to take sides in the Lebanese civil war. But Israel would not want to even indirectly support the overthrow of Assad regime’s until it knows what kind of regime will take its place, and what other changes are likely to be unleashed in the process.
ASSAD HAS BURNED HIS BRIDGES
While it is unclear how long the process will take, in the long term it is now clear that Assad cannot remain in power. He has long since squandered any support he once had from the Syrian people, who at this point won’t stand for his continued rule under any circumstances.
Assad now has only two choices. He can try to make the best deal he can to find asylum in Russia, Iran or some other country that will still take him in, or he can face the same fate as Moammar Gadhaffi at the hands of his own people.
NOW IT’S UP TO THE MILITARY
While many civilian opponents of the Assad regime are now seeking to arm themselves and fight for their freedom, the only military force now facing the regular Syrian army is the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It claims to have 30,000 members, including a few generals and several hundred junior officers. The FSA is poorly armed and not well organized. According to Syrian sources, it is supported financially by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In recent months, the FSA has been able to stage some hit and run raids on army sites, and temporarily take control of some small Syrian towns or suburbs of Damascus. However, it is incapable of successfully waging a conventional battle against the far more heavily armed regular Syrian army forces.
The failure of the Security Council resolution was taken by the commander of the Free Syrian Army, Colonel Riad al-Assad, as proof that it is now up to him to lead the fight for the liberation of Syria. “The political options have failed. This regime won’t end except through force. Only military options are now on the table,” he said.
An activist in Idlib relayed the same sentiment from a recent local protest chant: “Enough for being peaceful, enough whatever, we want weapons and rockets.”
Thousands of refugees have already fled from Syria to live in improvised refugee camps along the Turkish border and in Lebanon. Many were chased out of their homes by gunfire from the Syrian army and thugs working for the regime’s security forces.
Even for ordinary Syrians who are not directly involved in the violence, these are frightening times. Many of those who have the means are leaving. Members of the majority Sunni Muslim sect are fleeing to the oil-rich Persian Gulf states.
In Homs, one woman said that for months, she and her husband had refused to leave the city for fear of what would then happen to their house.
“The security forces took my sister’s house because she lives abroad,” she said. “They broke her things and used the chairs and tables as wood to light the fireplace. My husband asked my sons, ‘Do you want this to happen to our house?’ ”
On Sunday, she said that things had gotten so bad in the city that she and her husband finally decided to leave for Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
While there is still peace in the streets of Damascus, the situation there has also been deteriorating. Workers are having a harder time commuting to their jobs because the state has commandeered many of the public buses to transport its security agents and militiamen.
Families have begun stockpiling food, medicine and drinking water. Essential like bread and cooking gas have become harder to find and the prices of all kinds of consumer goods are soaring.
Electrical service in Damascus is now spotty. After dark, most residents don’t go out unless it is an emergency. The trendy restaurants in the city are now half empty and close early.
“I know of at least 10 families my age who left to Dubai in recent weeks, and most of my relatives moved to Beirut,” said a 32-year-old businessman from Damascus.
Minority Alawites, who until recently were among the privileged class in Damascus as members of the Assad family sect, now feel physically threatened.
A 34-year-old Alawite teacher said that six months ago she started dressing like Sunni Muslim women, hoping not to stand out. She said that her husband, an officer in the Syrian Army, never gets leave from his base any more to come home, and that she and their two sons had not seen him in months.
ALAWITES NOW LIVE IN FEAR
She said that she has been making plans to return to her native Alawite village, and that most of her friends in the Damascus neighborhoods of al-Hajar al-Aswad and Qadam had already left or were planning to go back to their native villages as well.
She said that she is particularly afraid because most of the people who are losing family members in the rebellion are Sunnis. “Whoever lost a son or a brother wants revenge, and he will take vengeance from Alawites before anyone else because most Alawites are commanders of security forces,” the teacher said. “I am sorry to say this, but I think the Assad regime is using us in the crackdown, and when it falls, they will run away, and we will pay a heavy price.”
The Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed to this story.