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Syria Update: “The regime is prepared to massacre everyone”

The Assad regime has sharply ratcheted up its crackdown on Syrian civilians, and reports are emerging that Iranians and Hezbollah members are assisting them. That assistance, according to several reports including that of a Syrian defector interviewed on camera, entails shooting Syrian soldiers in the back who refuse to fire on protesters.

Assad has dispatched tanks to subdue Jisr al-Shughour, the northern town in which more than 100 Syrian soldiers are reported to have been killed last week. The regime is blaming protesters for the soldiers’ deaths and is using the incident as justification for what sounds, from the sketchy reports leaking out of the town (all press are banned), like an exceptionally gruesome and vicious assault. As of this writing, the town — pop. 41,000 — is reported to be almost completely empty. The attack on Jisr al-Shughour appears to be part of a wider escalation by the regime: on Friday, Assad employed air power against protesters for the first time when he sent helicopter gunships to disperse crowds in Maarat al-Numaan.

Eyewitness testimony is being provided by refugees who fled into neighboring Turkey. The BBC, using this testimony, reported yesterday that Syrian soldiers are killing citizens, setting wheat fields on fire, and ripping out olive trees. One soldier who fled after participating in the assault on the town of Homs said, “When we entered the houses, we opened fire on everyone, the young, the old… Women were raped in front of their husbands and children.” Another soldier who was in Homs said, “I realized that the regime is prepared to massacre everyone.”

More than 4,000 refugees have crossed the Turkish border so far, with thousands more still fleeing towards it. Turkey has set up a field hospital to attend to the refugees, but is apprehensive that they will push further into the country and is taking steps to prevent them from making contact with relatives in Turkey.

Assad, meanwhile, is taking increasing international heat. Britain, France, Germany and Portugal are calling for the UN Security Council to condemn him. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “I would say the slaughter of innocent lives in Syria should be a problem and a concern for everybody…Whether Assad still has the legitimacy to govern his own country, I think is a question everyone needs to consider.” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who recently referred to Assad as a “good friend” — is now using words like “atrocities,” “savagery,” and “barbaric” about Assad’s crackdown. Referring to the activities of the Syrian 4th Armored Division, which is under the command of Bashar’s brother Maher Assad, Erdogan said, “Sadly, they don’t behave like humans.” With reference to the prospect of UN condemnation of the Assad regime, he said, “We can’t [support] Syria amidst all this…We still have relatives [in Syria].”

That’s the general picture. So — will Assad bend to international pressure? Will he ease up on his people to secure his position?

No and no.

As Haaretz notes, Assad has the backing at the UN of Russia and China, so the disapprobation of the likes of Ban-ki Moon aren’t losing him any sleep. And if he loses Turkey as an ally, what of it? He’s still got Iran, and again, Russia’s in his corner. A Libya-esque military intervention is exceedingly unlikely in view of Syria’s strategic alliances, and Assad couldn’t care less about non-military censure. Syria has weathered plenty of international isolation before now.

What about mass defections from the army, or mass refusals to take part in the crackdown? It’s doubtful that either was ever very likely, and they’re near impossibilities now that Iran and Hezbollah are taking care of clean-up. The opposition reports that defections from the army are in the hundreds, not thousands, suggesting nary a dent in the stability of Assad’s military machine. And the opposition is its own problem. Haaretz reports that they’re splintered over issues like “whether to call for international military intervention, how to build the post-Assad regime, how to divide the political pie among Sunni and Shi’ite, Christian and Alawi; between urban and rural, between tribal heads and urban elites.” Any such dissension works in Assad’s favor.

There’s no standing down now. If he gives in, he dies. Assad’s in it for as long as it takes to crush the opposition.