Items About Areas That Could Break Out Into War
June 20, 2011: The government claims that 500 members of the security forces have died in three months of escalating violence. Some 1,500 civilians are believed to have been killed, and some 10,000 arrested. Another 10,000 (so far) have fled to Turkey. The government has ordered the military to use tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships against armed civilians and mutinous troops.
The months of unrest has caused an economic crisis. The Syrian government has had growing money problems since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Those Cold War era handouts from Russia were a big help, but nothing has replaced them, and the armed forces have been falling apart. Despite the aging tanks and warplanes, the assault rifles and machine-guns still work fine, and that's all you need to kill civilians. Still, the troops expect to be paid, and if Iran doesn't come through with the cash for that, and other essential expenses, it will all be over. So far, Iran has come through with killers and cash.
The UN would like to condemn Syria, but China and Russia oppose such a move. Partly this is on general principle. Many Russians are still fighting the Cold War, and China is still run by a communist dictatorship which could also be condemned for some of its security measures. Both China and Russia want to do business with Iran, which appreciates efforts to block UN criticism of client state Syria. It's all about shared interests.
The Syrian government believes that if can outlast the popular unrest, as long as the rebels have no outside support. So far, there is no outside support from neighboring states, and the UN has been neutralized. The West is not coming to the aid of the rebels as happened in Libya. So, while there is danger, the Assads and their cronies are optimistic. Then again, they don't have much choice.
With at least half the Syrian 400,000 security forces (police and army) of uncertain reliability, the government is using the 100,000 or so reliable killers (mainly Republican Guard and secret police, plus Hezbollah gunmen from Lebanon and security specialists from Iran) to terrorize (and slaughter, if need be) those civilians who continue to oppose the government. This is a risky strategy, because if enough less reliable troops and police shoot back, it's all over for the dictatorship. But the government hard-liners, led by the president's brother (Maher Assad), have won the argument over how to handle the unrest. There's no going back from this.
The security forces are held together by fear. The secret police have informers in all military and police units, and all commanders are members of the ruling Baath Party (another branch of the party that ran Iraq under Saddam Hussein). Over the decades, discipline has slipped. The informers are usually no secret, and many of the police and army commanders are Baath in name only (it's a job for them, nothing more.) The Assad family ignored this sort of thing, and now army and police units are starting to rebel, with the informers and commanders either driven out, or joining the opposition. Thus the government is playing a nerve wracking game of chess with the security forces, sending the few reliable units to where they believe the population needs to be intimidated. Less reliable units are kept at their bases, with weapons locked up and loyalist commanders fearing for their lives.
The more reform minded members of the government, backed by president Basher Assad, are offering to share some power. This is supposed to placate many rebellious Syrians, who are more concerned with economic opportunities than political ones. While this is true, most Syrians don't trust the Assads, not after four decades of lies, violence and corruption. But the Assad's and their supporters don't have much choice. The UN is already talking about war crimes prosecutions for the Assads and their senior associates. For the fifth of the population that benefitted most from Assad rule, and provides the trigger pullers for the current massacres, poverty and exile are likely if the rebels win. So there's an incentive for a lot of Syrians to keep killing those who want freedom and reform. The only way out of this bloody mess is a peace deal. But the opposition doesn't have any leadership yet, and when one appears, compromise may not be an option.
June 19, 2011: Syrian troops increased border controls, with orders to halt the flow of refugees. Those refugees are the source of horror stories from inside Syria. That stuff gets back to the Syrian public and pisses more people off. So the army is trying to break the cycle.
In neighboring Lebanon, there was a violent riot between Alawites and Sunnis in Tripoli. There were dozens of casualties, including seven dead. The local Alawites were demonstrating in favor of the Assads. The more numerous Sunnis protested violently, seeing the Alawites (a Shia sect) as representatives of the Shia Iranians. Arabs and Iranians do not get along well.
June 18, 2011: Syrian troops have been ordered to terrorize hostile (or potentially hostile) civilians in the north. Villages are being burned and mass arrests are taking place. Not a lot of dead bodies. That stuff can get ugly if pictures show up on the Internet. Just terrorizing civilians is another matter, as that works and does not photograph well.
June 17, 2011: The protests come on a weekly basis, on Friday (the Moslem day of prayer). Today was no exception, despite the reports of violence in the north. The security forces have a drill they now follow. Send police and troops to towns, villages or neighborhoods likely to have demonstrations, with orders to open fire if necessary. The massacres in the north are no secret, the Internet and cell phones have seen to that. It's not like in the old days (two decades ago) when control of newspapers and electronic (TV and radio) media meant so much to a dictator. The uncontrollable Internet makes government controlled media a liability, as any energetic propaganda campaign gets exposed and mocked on the net. The government insists that the unrest is caused by foreigners. Israel is always a favorite culprit, but the government also accuses Islamic radicals, who are intent on establishing a religious dictatorship. This is ironic, as one of the Assads' most powerful allies is Iran, a religious dictatorship run by Shia Islamic radicals.
June 15, 2011: A Syrian Catholic bishop spoke out in support of the government. Like many dictatorships, the Assads have always favored minorities, who are always looking for safety in any kind of government support. But as loyal government supporters, the minorities (Druze, Alawites and Christians in Syria) end up in bed with the devil, and strongly identified as the bad guys comes the revolution.
June 13, 2011: In neighboring Lebanon, Iran backed Hezbollah staged a coup of its own, forming a new government where Hezbollah (a militia formed from among the minority Shia) control 18 of 30 cabinet positions. Iranian cash, and Iranian weapons (shipped in via Syria) have made Hezbollah mighty, and now given it control of a minority government. Now it's even more important for Iran to keep the Assads in power.
June 12, 2011: Turkey has tried to keep the media from the Syrian refugees coming across the border. But the refugees had stories to tell, and the Turkish security measures eventually failed. Turkish public opinion is generally with the Syrian rebels.
June 11, 2011: A UN report accuses Syria of trying to hide a network of nuclear research facilities.