Following over 150 deaths this week already, reports are coming in today of a massive military build up near the two restive towns of Hama and Deir al-Zour. Observers fear a repeat of the bloody crackdown 30 years ago.
In scenes only normally witnessed in war time military maneuvers, reports are coming in today of what appears to be an impending attack on a massive scale on the cities of Hama and Deir al-Zour. According to the BBC at midday GMT, 100 tanks were on the way to Hama and another 200 were spotted on route to the city of Deir al-Zour.
Hama is the historical heart of revolt against dictatorship in Syria and the scene of a crime against humanity in 1982, when Assad's father crushed an uprising, killing 30,000 people there. Deir al-Zour also has major significance as it was the epicenter of the current revolution, whose uprising provoked unrest across the country. Moreover, Deir al-Zour is at the heart of the Syrian oil producing region, which is a crucial source of income for Assad. Picking on these two cities appears to be an attempt to crush the symbolic hearts of the revolution and terrorize the country into submission, by possibly executing a bloodbath of repression.
In an ominous statement yesterday, Assad warned that this revolution "will not fare any better than previous ones." A thinly veiled threat that he would be prepared to duplicate his father's ruthless response to the uprising in Hama nearly 30 years ago.
More than 140 people have been killed this week in Hama, with tanks bombarding buildings and using heavy machine guns to shoot indiscriminately at people on the streets. Tank shells were falling at the rate of four a minute according to reports and at almost every mosque troops were positioned to mow down worshipers as they left.
A phone caller to the British Guardian newspaper from inside the city said, "There are bodies uncollected in the streets," adding that army snipers had positioned themselves on the roofs of the state-owned electricity company and the main prison.”
Those in contact with the outside world relate stories of great heroism with people attempting to fight back with sticks and stones. Residents have tried to halt the tanks with makeshift barricades, which have proved impossible at halting the oncoming tanks. Another caller to CNN told the agency "I'm talking to you from the streets. I have my knife," The man said he and his neighbors are trying to protect the neighborhood, using only sticks, swords and knives.”
A member of the revolution's Local Coordination Committees, described the scene to TIME magazine "People would see a tank advancing toward them, and they'd stand their ground, thousands of them," "The tank would be firing, and the people would be attacking it, with stones, with their hands, with sticks."
At the same time, as the assault on Hama, the Syrian regime was attacking the towns of al-Boukamal, Mouathamiya near Damascus, al-Harak, Albu Kamal, Zabadani and Latakia.
Assad has painted the opposition as “terrorists” and "armed gangs," as well as elements bent on whipping up sectarian divisions. However, it would appear that the only armed gangs are Assad's para-military shabiha thugs, who are from his Alawite sect and who have been unleashing sectarian attacks the Sunni population. Apart from driving around machine gunning down people on the streets, these thugs are now reported to be throwing nail bombs at demonstrators - a weapon much favored by terrorists for its ability to inflict maximum casualties.
While deaths, from what is little more than premeditated mass murder, have been mounting, the UN has been deliberating over the wording of a resolution to condemn the activities of the Syrian regime in a watered down version, which would be acceptable to all members. Such a statement has been blocked so far by the “usual suspects” of Russia, China, India, Brazil, Lebanon and South Africa.
Two days ago the Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said she thought a resolution would be "somewhat excessive," and that sanctions would be “unbalanced.” However, they have now said that they aren't “categorically” against some sort of statement. The Arab League continues to say nothing about events there.
The European Union has extended its sanctions against Assad's government by imposing travel bans and freezing of asset and yesterday Italy withdrew its ambassador from Damascus. However, it is not clear why such measures should have anymore effect on Assad than they did against Gaddafi, the measures against whom were much more draconian.
One hope is that by using such large forces, Assad will have to engage regular Army troops. Until now he has used mostly reliable elite brigades under the command of his brother, Maher. The regular forces, however, are largely made up of Sunni Muslims like the majority of the population. Consequently, it might be possible that large numbers would defect once pitted against their own people. There have already been desertions, but not yet on a scale large enough to worry the regime.
The Guardian reported a Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who told AFP: "I am the commander of the Syrian Free Army" and warned against any attack on Deir Ezzor.” It remains to be seen whether they can play any important role.
Some in the opposition have called for military help, while most are opposed to any foreign intervention. British FM William Hague said earlier this week that there was "not a remote possibility" of that happening, telling the BBC "There is no prospect of a legal, morally sanctioned military intervention." While US Joint Chiefs' chairman Admiral Mike Mullen also stated, "There's no indication whatsoever that the Americans, that we would get involved directly with respect to this."
If there is a bloodbath in two cities, the West could find itself in the very awkward position of having to justify why it stepped in to avoid a massacre in Benghazi, while refusing to do so in Hama and Deir al-Zour.