When demonstrations against Syrian President Bashar Assad began in late March, few expected them to last very long given the dictator's longstanding use of torture and repression to silence dissent. But more than seven months later a revolution has spread throughout the country in spite of Assad's stepped-up campaign of intimidation against his own people.
More than 3,000 people have been killed by Syrian security forces and another 15,000 have disappeared or been arrested since March, veteran journalist Amir Taheri wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
The Assad regime has long sought to portray itself as a secularist bulwark against the Islamist radicalism represented by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1982, Bashar's father, then-Syrian President Hafez Assad, brutally put down a Brotherhood-led revolt in Hama by massacring up to 25,000 people.
But according to Taheri, the current uprising against the Assad clan is stronger and more diverse. The previous insurrection was largely confined to Sunni Muslims, who comprise more than 70 percent of the Syrian population. This time, the revolt is supported by Sunnis as well as Christians (12 percent of the population) and smaller communities including Syrian Druze, Kurds, and Turkmen.
"A full-scale civil war, with the Alawite minority regime fighting for its life against an armed rebellion by forces based in the Sunni majority population, seemed increasingly possible" as the Assad government stepped up its crackdown in recent weeks, said Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration.
Writing in The Atlantic, Abrams proposes a strategy for the United States and other Western nations to "isolate the Assad regime and its closest cronies from the rest of the Alawite community, which largely has not shared in the riches Assad has dispensed to close supporters." He argues that Washington should try to send a message to Assad's generals telling them that they can salvage hope for their future "by refusing now to kill their fellow citizens."
Another priority is turning the Syrian business community against Assad. Foreign investment and tourism have fallen by more than half this year and exports by more than two-thirds. The United States needs to drive home the point that if Assad retains power, he will ensure that Syria's economic misery continues, Abrams writes.
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