Outside editorial: Syrian winter: Assad shoots democracy advocates

The following editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

When pro-democracy protesters began rallying a few weeks ago, Syrian President Bashar Assad set out to change their tune. He has succeeded, though not quite as he hoped.

At the beginning, demonstrators wanted the longtime dictator to embrace political reform, and he made some gestures in that direction, such as lifting a 48-year-old state of emergency law. Now, they don’t want him to embrace reform; they want him to leave.

The change of heart has come in response to the government’s violent suppression of dissent, which has reportedly claimed more than 400 lives. Last Friday and Saturday, security forces opened fire on protesters in several cities, killing more than 100 people. Others have been arrested and tortured.

Outraged dissidents destroyed pictures of the president and smashed statues of his father, Hafez Assad, whose death in 2000 brought Bashar to power. Others chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime.”

The regime has raised the stakes — and the risks to its survival. By killing so many, it has assured a procession of funerals that will be used as new occasions to dramatize the need for drastic political change. There have been news reports that some military units have refused to fire on demonstrators. Two members of parliament and a government-appointed Muslim cleric have resigned their posts in protest of the crackdown.

Assad’s brutality has also spurred other nations to mobilize against him. The Obama administration indicated it may impose economic sanctions on Syria, and European countries will most likely follow suit. Leaders of France, Italy and Great Britain condemned the violence on Tuesday.

Assad is unlikely to flinch at diplomatic finger-wagging. He knows the West has its hands full enforcing a no-fly zone in the stalemated civil war in Libya. Syria already has plenty of experience with surviving economic sanctions. Its fate rests in the hands of its own persistent people.

Until now, the United States and its allies had tried to coax Assad to implement reform, hoping to avert violent upheaval in a strategically located country. But Assad has made such indulgence untenable.

After Bashar took over, he held out the hope of liberalization, but his modest reforms didn’t last. When democratic hopes rolled over the Arab world this year, he couldn’t bring himself to swim with the tide. His decision last week to lift the state of emergency, it appears, was merely an excuse to demand that opponents stop demonstrating, or else.

But his crackdown may do the regime more harm than good. As other governments in the region have found, brutality often does not stop demands for change. On the contrary, it expands their appeal, and gives proponents new motivation.

The turmoil evokes concern in neighboring countries, particularly Israel and Turkey, which fear Syria could descend into sectarian violence or fall to a radical Islamic revolution. Those worries can’t be dismissed, if only because so much is unknown about the country. But nationalist feeling may be strong enough to prevent factional fighting, and there are few signs that Syrians yearn for fundamentalist rule.

The world has moved sharply toward democracy in recent decades, and the Arab world has begun to join the parade. It’s up to Assad to decide if he wants to try to get in front or risk being trampled.

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