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Syria's Crackdown Provokes Sharp Debate

In a photo taken during a guided government tour, Syrian soldiers raise their weapons while holding a picture of President Bashar Assad as they leave the eastern city of Deir al-Zour on Aug. 16, following a 10-day military operation.
AFP/Getty Images
In a photo taken during a guided government tour, Syrian soldiers raise their weapons while holding a picture of President Bashar Assad as they leave the eastern city of Deir al-Zour on Aug. 16, following a 10-day military operation.

Over the past five months, the Syrian military has repeatedly used tanks and heavy weaponry on cities and towns that are centers of protest.

As has been the case most every Friday since March, demonstrators turned out in huge numbers after the midday prayers, and there was more violence. Activists said that Syrian security forces fired at protesters across the country, reportedly killing at least 20.

Assessing whether this Syrian strategy is working depends on whom you ask — and which version of the military crackdown in Syria you accept.

The anti-government version is that peaceful protesters are being attacked by the army.

The government version is that the military is battling an armed insurgency, led by terrorists.

Even in neighboring Lebanon — which was basically occupied by Syria for almost 30 years — people are divided on the subject. There, rallies in support of protesters and those championing the Syrian president are both common.

Amin Hotait, a retired general in the Lebanese army, remembers the lengthy Syrian presence in his country.

He says it's no surprise that Syria is using tanks against its own people, saying that's how forces around the world deal with terrorists and other armed opponents.

Hotait claims there is a parallel to NATO military operations in Afghanistan and Libya.

In Afghanistan, Hotait says, NATO is using aircraft and tanks, and in Libya, he says NATO is using aircraft against men armed with only rifles.

"That's the rule of the military, and this is the rule of the operations," he says.

But in the case of Syria, human-rights groups say the way civilians have been killed and injured — from indiscriminate shooting and shelling, and from forced disappearances — amounts to crimes against humanity. The U.N. is deciding whether to refer the case to the International Criminal Court.

But if the Syrian military is not actually fighting a large-scale insurgency but instead using its army to put down a mostly peaceful uprising, then what is the strategy?

"There is no strategy," says Elias Hanna, another retired Lebanese general who has experience with the Syrians. "The strategy is the survival."

"In Syria you cannot really differentiate between the regime itself, the intelligence apparatuses ... as well as the army. If one loses the other loses," he says.

If the goal is total regime survival, the enemy is the people who oppose the regime. And that means killing your own people, as a way to keep governing your own people.

In other words, Hanna says, it's a strategy that's eventually doomed.

The protesters in Syria hope that army commanders will realize this dilemma and begin refusing to shoot their own people — or that large numbers of soldiers will defect to the rebel side.

But one retired Syrian officer, who spoke to NPR by Skype, says this scenario is very unlikely. He did not want to give his name or his rank for fear of reprisals.

He says his fellow officers enjoy great perks, such as money, cars, houses, power, and impunity. So why would they want to defect?

What's more, he says, what could they defect to? So far there's no unified opposition in Syria and the punishment can be brutal.

One of his friends recently did defect and then left the country. Now the man's father and two brothers in Syria have been thrown in jail.

The Syrian regime has spent four decades building a military bent on survival, the retired officer says. It's not going to give up easily.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelly McEvers
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.