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Syria: How Far Has Uprising Spread?

By Salam Hafez

Salam Hafez

As the revolution in Syria continues unabated, IWPR Iraq editor Salam Hafez assesses the extent of the unrest and the relative strengths of the security forces the and rebel Syrian Free Army, SFA, amid growing concerns that the uprising may soon turn into a civil war.

How much of the country is in turmoil, and which areas are fairly quiet?

The demonstrations - and now an ongoing general strike - have affected most of Syria; including, at the start of the uprising, areas where Kurds and Christians are a majority.

What started in Dera, and some suburbs of Damascus, eight months ago has rocked the whole country.

Even the Alawites, whose members form the ruling elite, have not been immune. Early in the uprising, protests took place in the town of Al-Suida, where Alawite and Druze are the dominant groups, but these were brutally suppressed.

Demonstrations spread to other towns in the governorate of Dera and Deir al-Zour. As escalating violence was used to suppress these protests, more and more Syrians took to the streets in Homs, Hama, Reef Aleppo and Reef Damascus.

Shortly afterwards, along the north-western coast, the town of Latakia followed suit, but the protest there was reportedly crushed by the Syrian navy.

At the same time, demonstrations broke out in the Kurdish town of Qamishly.

Four months into the uprising and before the start of Ramadan, all but the Alawite stronghold in north-west of the country were witnessing daily anti-government rallies.

Some Alawites have taken part in demonstrations in Homs and Hama, and a number have been killed protesting, but the majority of this community remains steadfastly behind the regime.

The bloodiest demonstrations thus far have been staged in the larger population centres, such as Homs, Hama, Dera, Jisr Al-Shughur, Bou Kamal, the suburbs of Damascus – including a few areas in the city itself – and some towns neighbouring the capital.

Other urban centres that have witnessed protests and where a general strike is currently being enforced include Al-Hasakah, Al-Raqbah, Qantirah, Houran, Idlib, Bench, Deir al-Zour and Golan.

Protests have been rare in the Alawite strongholds in the mountainous region of Al-Jabal, which includes the towns of Tartous, Beit Yashoot – where the majority of state militia shabiha are from. Some coastal towns and the city of Aleppo have been little affected by the troubles.

Why has Aleppo remained largely unaffected?

Central areas in Aleppo remain quiet because of the heavy presence of security forces, desperate to avoid any Tahrir Square-type gatherings in one of Syria’s most important cities.

Activists and civilians say the number of shabiha that patrol Aleppo runs into the tens of thousands. The city is targeted by fierce state propaganda campaign to discredit the opposition movement.

At the start of the uprising, hundreds of political activists and students were arrested in Aleppo and many more threatened with dire consequences if they took part in any protests.

Last Friday, a small demonstration in the Salaheddin district lasted little more than a couple of minutes before shabiha dispersed demonstrators by firing live ammunition.

But outside the centre, there have been fierce skirmishes between the newly-formed Free Syrian Army, FSA, and government security forces.

Are there any parts of Syria which are semi-controlled by the SFA, or that have become no-go areas for the regime?

There are some areas – small but geographically crucial – that have effectively come under the control of the SFA. The areas form a belt in the north-west of the country, regarded by many as the heart of the revolution.

Right now, some villages in Dera, Jebal Al-Zawya and Idlib and some districts in Hama and Homs are under the protection of the FSA – and those are the places the government has reportedly attacked with fighter jets and bombarded heavily with tanks and artillery, rather than mounting ground attacks. The regime fears that this belt could become Syria’s Benghazi within very close proximity to the regime strongholds in Al-Jabel.

There were pockets of resistance in Al-Rastan and Deir al-Zour, though both fell back under the state control after weeks of heavy fighting. But elements of the FSA still operate there, as they do in
19 other cities and suburbs around the country, mounting periodic attacks on security forces, often using guerrilla-style tactics.

What part has fear of the regime played in determining where the uprising has taken root and where it still lags behind?

Fear has played – and continues to play – a major part.

The Syrian forces have repeatedly used live ammunition, and, after decades of repression, the public is fully aware of the regime’s violent capabilities. Political activists, in particular, understand well the torture methods employed by the regime.

There are many who oppose the regime yet are afraid to join the protest moment for fear of arrest, torture and death.

But it would be naive to think that the Assad regime does not have backers. These are mainly those who are close to the Baath party, or have business interests connected with it. There are also those who do not believe that the regime can be toppled, and that the ambitions of the protest movement are futile.

Opinion could be slowly shifting as the crackdown widens and becomes more brutal. If civilians in major cities see tanks roll into Damascus and Aleppo that might be enough to tip the balance in favour of the demonstrators. As previous evidence shows, the more brutal the regime becomes the more it loses credibility in the eyes of civilians. There are those who still believe that the uprising is the work of terrorists, and seeing tanks being used against unarmed civilians would dispel any such notion.

And with the formation of the Syrian National Council, SNC, and the Higher Council of Coordinators inside Syria, which appear to be making diplomatic progress abroad, those who have remained on the sidelines of the protest movement may be swept up by it because they would begin to regard it as a legitimate force.

What has been the toll on both the FSA and security forces?

There have been losses on both sides, although accurate figures are impossible to get. Some military experts say that the eight-month crackdown, coupled with international sanctions, is beginning to take its toll on security forces and shabiha. Some wonder how long the regime can continue to pay the wages of the shabiha, and whether they will remain loyal.

General fatigue and the relentless nature of the violence may also be having a psychological effect on the security forces. Many of those involved in the crackdown have not had a day off in months, and even supplying them with daily food rations while they’re on active service is becoming a logistical nightmare.

This, some activists say, is pushing the security forces to the edge, prompting them to become more brutal to try to end the uprising.

On the other hand, morale amongst the FSA, who have the support of the people they are trying to protect, is high. With limited weaponry and no air cover, they’re incurring heavy losses, yet they’re motivated to continue.

How has Damascus been affected by the uprising?

There have been protests in Damascus but there is also a heavy security presence there, mainly shabiha. Its suburbs and neighbouring towns, such as Douma, Harasta, Bou Kamal and others, are witnessing some of the fiercest crackdowns, due to the large number of army defections with many going into hiding in those areas where they have the backing of the civilian population.

Some activists claim that more than 20,000 conscripts have deserted the armed forces in the vicinity of Damascus, although it is important to note that not all defectors join the FSA - some flee to other countries in the region or simply go into hiding.

In the Damascus region, the FSA’s Abeed al-Jarah brigade is engaging with security forces on a daily basis – and there have been reports that they attacked President Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf last week and kidnapped some of his associates. An FSA spokesman told IWPR that more attacks were planned against government figures.

Concern has been expressed about the uprising turning into a civil war engulfing the whole country. How would this happen?

The regime’s brutal crackdown on Idlib, Homs and Hama is for a reason – to stop a Benghazi-style breakaway. The opposition realises this and the FSA is looking to achieve the latter.

Many activists in these cities say they want to maintain their peaceful approach with the FSA protecting them and launching occasional attacks on the security forces.

However, their patience is running thin. And with no real and material backing for the protest movement from the Arab and international community, there have been reports of civilians joining the ranks of the FSA.

So the longer the unrest goes on, the more civilians – including Christians and Kurds - would choose to take up arms against the government to protect themselves and make sure the uprising doesn’t fail.