Skip to main content

Deadly attack on protesters raises questions about Syria's stability

By Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
Click to play
Obama mulls next steps in Syria
  • Attack on city raises questions about Syria's hold on military, government
  • Syrian military commander refuses to fire on protesters
  • U.S. considers sanctions against Syria

(CNN) -- With reports emerging that at least one high-ranking Syrian military commander refused to participate in a bloody, predawn raid that left dozens dead in the southern border city of Daraa -- the heart of Syria's weekslong civil unrest, questions are being raised about possible cracks in President Bashar al-Assad's hold over the military.

The crackdown on anti-government protesters by Syrian forces escalated in recent days as demonstrators, emboldened by weeks of protests, called for the ouster of al-Assad. The government's effort reached a new level Monday when thousands of troops and security forces raided Daraa and, according to witnesses, began firing indiscriminately.

It was an attack reminiscent of the brutal rule of al-Assad's father, who once ordered the military to crush a revolt that resulted in the deaths of thousands.

"I think he's clearly going toward the security solution, which is where he could be following in the steps of his father," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington-based think tank.

CNN has not been granted access into Syria and is unable to independently verify witness accounts. CNN has spoken with witnesses, some of whom have also reported what they see via social networking sites and posted homemade videos. Reports also have been compiled by human rights organizations.

There had been hope early on that al-Assad would not use the military to quell demonstrations after signaling last week that he was open to loosening his hold on the country following five weeks of protests where demonstrators called for more freedoms and regime reform. That changed over the weekend as protesters, primarily in southern Syria, called for the fall of the regime.

Bloody new crackdown in Syria
Pre-dawn raid in Daraa fuels fear, anger
Vanishing in Syria

The Syrian government has disputed witness accounts, saying the military was responding to "calls for help from the citizens of Daraa and their appeal to the armed forces as to intervene and put an end to the operations of killings, vandalism, and horrifying (actions) by extremist terrorist groups," the state-run news agency SANA reported, citing an official army source.

But there was at least one account that illustrated that perhaps not everybody in the military was in agreement with the order to attack Daraa. A military official, described as the second-in-command of the brigade that entered the city, was arrested after refusing to follow orders to storm the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and another opposition source. The commander has not been identified.

The top echelon of Syria's security forces are populated by al-Assad loyalists -- Alawites, a religious minority that accounts for about 12% of Syria's population, and Baathists, a Sunni-dominated socialist political party. The members of the Syrian security forces -- who are predominantly Sunni -- are drafted, reflecting the ethnic and religious portrait of the country's 23 million residents.

Though it's unclear the extent to which the Syrian military official who refused to fire on Daraa influenced troops under his command, analysts say it is unlikely the commander will be the last should the unrest continue in Syria.

"The rank-and-file are made up of Sunnis. They are not going to fire on crowds in their own communities," said Marius Deeb, an adjunct professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "Therefore, more defections are likely to happen."

There are also signs the attack has created some political upheaval for al-Assad with the resignations of at least two lawmakers and a mufti, a government-appointed head of clerics in Daraa, according to multiple reports from human rights and news agencies.

Up until the latest crackdown by Syrian forces, the U.S. had taken a somewhat hands-off approach to dealing with Syria out of fear of destabilizing al-Assad's government. Officials have voiced concern about possible sectarian tensions if al-Assad's government were overthrown, saying with the country's fragmented opposition it was unclear what type of government would take control.

The U.S. is now considering targeted sanctions among "a range of possible options" to pressure the Syrian government to stop attacking protesters, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies cautioned against believing that any regime change in Syria would automatically result in a government more extreme than al-Assad's regime.

"Like every case of instability in the region, all you are certain of is that it has no experience of governing and no experience of running the politics of a country," Cordesman said.

Because Syria's opposition is fragmented -- with a number of different Sunni groups representing a number of interests, Tabler said it was not a given that a group, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, would automatically come to power.

Al-Assad was viewed by many as a moderate solution to his father when he took control of the country 11 years ago. His father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power during a coup in 1970. In 1982, he ordered the military to crush an uprising against the Baathist government in the city of Hama, the fourth-largest city in Syria. Estimates put the death toll anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people, though the exact number was never known.

But the international community has since come to view the younger al-Assad with a wary eye after he made and then broke a number of promises.

"He rules from a position of ambiguity," Tabler said. "He rules by announcing something and then not following through. This is where he is different from his father. His father was never known for making promises. But when he did, both domestically and internationally, he lived up to them."

Recently, al-Assad lifted the country's 48-year-old state of emergency and abolished the state security court, both of which were key demands of the demonstrators. The emergency law permitted the government to make preventive arrests and override constitutional and penal code statutes. The security court was a special body that prosecuted people regarded as challenging the government.

Last week, al-Assad issued a decree recognizing and regulating the right to peaceful protest. It also extended the period that security forces can hold suspects in certain crimes.

But the reforms did little to quell the protests, which have grown since demonstrators first took to the streets in mid-March. Since then, there have been a number of clashes between Syria's security forces and protesters. Human rights groups have put the death toll in the hundreds.

"The reality is that he had the opportunity early on to try reform. Instead things dragged on and on, and then the violence got very serious," Cordesman said. "The problem now for Assad and for the demonstrators is that there is no easy way out."

Part of complete coverage on
'Sons of Mubarak' in plea for respect
Pro-Mubarak supporters believe Egypt's former president is innocent of charges of corruption and killing protesters.
Timeline of the conflict in Libya
Fighting in Libya started with anti-government demonstrations in February and escalated into a nationwide civil war.
Who are these rebels?
After months of seeming stalemate, Libyan rebels declared they were moving in on Tripoli. But who are they?
Why NATO's Libya mission has shifted
Six months and more than 17,000 air sorties after it began, NATO's Operation Unified Protector in the skies over Libya grinds on.
Interactive map: Arab unrest
Click on countries in CNN's interactive map to see the roots of their unrest and where things stand today.
Send your videos, stories
Are you in the Middle East or North Africa? Send iReport your images. Don't do anything that could put you at risk.
Libya through Gadhafi's keyhole
Behind the official smiles for the cameras some people in Libya's capital are waiting for the rebels, reports CNN's Ivan Watson.
How Arab youth found its voice
Tunisia's Mohamed Bouazizi not only ignited a series of revolts but heralded the first appearance of Arab youth on the stage of modern history.