Passing The Buck on Syria
by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET)
April 4, 2012
It would make an interesting psychological case study: Where family dynasties rule as brutal dictatorships, what drives a son to try to out-perform the father.
In North Korea, for example, soon after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 who, during his lifetime, had a memorial built displaying the hundreds of thousands of gifts he had received from foreign dignitaries, his son-Kim Jong Il-ordered, during his lifetime, a similar memorial to be built. While the father's tally of gifts was reflected by a hand-crafted sign which periodically had to be updated, the son's tally was instantly recorded by means of an electronic counter. Clearly, Kim Jong Il was driven by some need to exceed his father's achievement.
In Syria, we see evidence of another dictatorship where a son competes with a father's reputation for brutality. However, in this case, the tally is one the son, Bashar al-Assad, does not want to have tracked by electronic counter. In fact, he keeps the death toll hidden from outside observers by refusing to allow foreign media into the country. Unfortunately for Syrians, Bashar is living proof of the "like father, like son" concept as he exhibits the same cruelty for which his late father was famous. Based on the current estimated death toll in the one year old uprising against Bashar, he is approaching at least 25% of his father's tally-and possibly as much as 50%.
Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria for three decades (1970-2000). He was a member of the minority Alawites whose beliefs are considered heretical by most Muslims. His reign in office was marred by one massacre after another:
In 1980, following a failed assassination attempt against Hafez, he ordered the execution of 1200 Islamist prisoners being held at Syria's Tadmor Prison. Two weeks later, he ordered a military offensive known as the Siege of Aleppo that led to a series of Sunni massacres.
In 1981, the Hama massacre, claiming 400 Sunni lives, was ordered after a failed Sunni attack against an Alawite village. Most its victims were males over the age of 14 who had been randomly selected from the city's population for execution.
In 1982, another massacre took place in Hama after members of the Muslim Brotherhood rose up against Hafez. He ordered his Alawite-led army into the city to brutally suppress the uprising. Estimates are between 20,000-40,000 civilians lost their lives-all killed in less than a month. To this day it remains as "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East."
Ironically, while Muslim countries continue to focus on Israel as their main threat, Bashar continues to contribute to a six-decade old Muslim death toll overwhelmingly caused by Arab on Arab violence while less than .03% of Muslim deaths during that timeframe have been the result of Israeli/Arab violence.
It would be an interesting psychological case study as well to understand why a media so freely used the word "massacre" to describe the father's brutality back then has yet to affix it to the son's. Perhaps it is because Bashar is not killing at the rapid pace his father did. But one wonders if there is a threshold number of victims to be tallied before Bashar's actions are recognized for what they truly are. Born with the killer DNA of his father, he undoubtedly is doing him proud today.
With the blood of thousands of Syrians on the hands of two generations of Assads and with Bashar making it clear he will never surrender power, one must assess the efficacy of former UN Secretary Kofi Annan's negotiated six-point plan for ending hostilities.
The best indicator the plan is a subterfuge for continued violence by Bashar is Iran's enthusiastic support for it. As an ally of Iran's mullahs, Syria remains a critical pawn in their efforts to de-stabilize the region. For the past year, Iran has supported Assad with weapons to put the uprising down, even sending an estimated 15,000 of its elite special forces (Quds) into Syria to assist. Iran simply cannot afford to lose Syria as an ally and is committed to keeping Assad in power, regardless of what it takes to do it. Senior Quds military leaders occupy Syrian operational command headquarters to ensure this happens. Thus, Iran sees the Annan plan as an opportunity for Assad to retain control under the guise of ending violence. Assad's failure to take action to pull back his forces as promised indicates he has no intention of complying.
It may well be Iran's influence that has caused violence most recently to be targeted against those who suffer most in times of war-children.
The UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, claims Syrian forces are deliberately targeting children, employing "horrendous" tactics. She reported to the BBC that, "They've gone for the children-for whatever purposes-in large numbers. Hundreds detained and tortured...Children shot in the knees, held together with adults in really inhumane conditions, denied medical treatment for their injuries, either held as hostages or as sources of information." She added, if Assad would "simply issue an order to stop the killings...the killings would stop."
In the first ten days after Assad failed to implement Annan's plan, an additional 45 children died.
While it is not surprising, Russia-long a supporter of a Syrian dictatorship representing its last ally in the region-favors the Annan plan, it is surprising so too does the US. And at the recent Arab League summit held in Baghdad-an organization from which Syria has been expelled-a group once actively focused on ending Syrian violence, toned down its rhetoric. It too endorsed the Annan peace plan while discouraging foreign intervention-not even suggesting Assad step down.
The Syrian opposition is becoming more and more frustrated by an international community seeking "to pass the buck."
As Assad continues to play the role of the Prince of Darkness to his own people, such international inaction fails to take advantage of a weak link in his armor. It is one about which Assad is very conscious as evidenced by a recent action he has undertaken.
What keeps Assad in power is an army that mirrors Syria's population-i.e., it is composed of a majority Sunni force controlled by a minority Alawite officer corps. It is the Sunni civilian population that is now suffering Assad's wrath. While Assad trusts his officer corps, he fears an unbridled army. This has been reflected by his recent decision to stop issuing weapons to new Sunni conscripts as the majority of arms flowing to the opposition have come from defecting Sunni soldiers.
As is often the case with brutal dictators, they use fear to control the majority. (Bashar appears to be an equal opportunity user of fear as minority Alawite Syrian ambassadors stationed abroad are required to leave their families behind where they effectively serve as hostages to ensure the ambassadors remain loyal.) At some point in time, however, a majority of those Sunnis serving in uniform will awaken to the death toll Assad is inflicting upon their fellow believers, causing them to overcome that fear and defect. But that is likely only to come when an international community demonstrates its commitment to step in and take action to support the opposition. The April 1 announcement that some Arab Persian Gulf states will provide a monthly stipend to Syrian opposition fighters represents a start, but much more is needed.
Unfortunately, it is the Syrian people alone who realize their struggle will be a prolonged one. Resolution will come either when Assad kills enough of his countrymen to break their fighting spirit or when a leader within the international community acknowledges "the buck stops here" by making such a commitment. International inaction will only ensure the son out-tallies the death toll of the father.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.