Syria: past the point of no return

Martin Chulov reports: When power starts to shift in the Middle East, its people have long known what to expect. Challenges to authority have rarely been met with a promise of consensus or inclusion. Strong-arm suppression – the more forceful the better – has been the default reaction to dissent. The price has usually been brutal.

Syrians who wanted an end to regime dominance knew the rules when they started demanding changes in the region’s most uncompromising police state in March last year. Now, 18 months and more than 23,000 bodies later, and with no end in sight to the chaos ravaging the country, their worst fears are being realised on a scale that continues both to horrify and numb.

And yet, the events of the past 18 months have shattered one of the abiding guidelines to life under totalitarian rule – that absolute power is uncontestable. If anything has so far been achieved through the bedlam now rumbling through Syria and indeed other parts of the Arab world, it is a new reality: the power of the street has exposed the fragility of authority.

“I had always said they would fall over when we were no longer scared of them,” Moustafa Abu Khalil, a retired electricity worker from the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour, told me in June. “It took a long time to get to the point where people were prepared to risk everything, their families, their futures, just to bring about change. “The truth be told, [the people] probably wouldn’t have got here if the regime did not continue to escalate the violence every month. That just fed the flames. And now we have a true revolution, civil war, call it what you will. It is a point of no return.”

With all of Syria’s cities now under siege, its capital Damascus and commercial hub Aleppo engulfed in violence, Syria seems well past that proverbial point. Defections have whittled down the strength and numbers of the country’s vaunted military and destruction and misery is seriously testing the resolve of both regime supporters and those who want Bashar al-Assad gone.

The country’s economy has been under the anaconda-like grip of international sanctions, which have ground industry to a halt, crippled trade supply lines, battered the currency and shattered confidence. In the hard-hit north, little works any more. War has seen Syrian society, already stuck – seemingly permanently in 1973 – wound back even further. There are more donkey carts than cars on the streets of some towns between Aleppo and the Turkish border. Clapped-out tractors belch fumes from precious fuel that is sold in two-litre bottles on rubbish-strewn roadsides for around $8 (£5).

“None of us can afford it,” says Abu Nour, a member of the Free Syrian Army, who, before the Syrian uprising gained momentum, was a tailor whose only military experience was 15 months as a conscript more than a decade ago. “I’m not sure where the money is coming from to get us to the frontline. Those things a person like me doesn’t ask.”

Abu Nour is now a foot soldier in the rebel army that is at the vanguard of the fight for Syria’s destiny. Drawn largely from the rural poor, and also represented by conservative Islamic groupings such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the FSA has taken the battle to the country’s two lead cities, where it is now engaged in a fight to the death with the regime army.

Rebel groups entered Aleppo and Damascus in mid-July and their early gains sparked predictions that four decades of uncompromising rule was about to end. But as a withering summer draws to a close across the northern plains that have harboured Aleppo, and the central plateau on which Damascus, the world’s oldest capital has stood for more than 6,000 years, this early optimism has yielded to a more unpalatable reality – that neither side is about to secure a decisive victory in either city anytime soon. [Continue reading…]

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