Certainty goes up in flames as Syria riots


Despite promising political reform and a repeal of the country's emergency laws last week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ordered his army to quell the pro-democracy protests in a number of cities.

The crackdown has so far claimed the lives of over 450 Syrians in five weeks but, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, there are so far no signs of the army refusing to fight. At the same time, despite having to face tanks and snipers, the demonstrators in towns such as Deraa and Banyas continue to flock to the streets, denouncing the president and calling for his removal.

"The army is an integral part of the ruling class," explained an Israeli intelligence official this week. "At least its senior officers are. For them, as it is for Assad, this could be a fight to the death and there are no signs as of yet of any discord in the army's higher echelons."

The army generals receive major economic concessions and many of them are members of the Assad family and his minority Allawite sect.

Currently, the units most actively involved in putting down the demonstrations in Deraa are the Fourth Division and the Presidential Guard, both under the command of the president's brother, Maher al-Assad.

What is becoming continuously conspicuous is the silence on Syria in both Tehran and Hizbollah-dominated Beirut. The Iranian regime and its Lebanese proxy fulsomely praised the Arab revolutions of recent months, especially the Egyptian one, which deposed the most implacable rival to Iran's regional hegemony, President Hosni Mubarak. Now it is their close ally who is at risk.

Under President Assad, Syria has not only become the link in the axis connecting Iran and Lebanon, it has also served as the main training area and weapons store for the Shia terror group, offering it strategic depth in any potential conflict with Israel.

At the same time, the Israeli government has also kept silent on the situation in Syria. This can be put down to two main factors. Any statement will be immediately used by the regime in Damascus to brand the demonstrators as "Zionist agents". Also, despite Israel's hostility to Mr Assad, he is still seen as a figure of stability who may one day be persuaded to leave the Iranian camp. No-one has any idea, after 48 years of Ba'ath party rule, what an alternative Syrian government would look like and whose interests it would serve.

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