The real concern coming out of today’s alleged events in Syria – that protesters killed 120 Syrian troops in an ambush – is that the Assad regime uses them (true or not) as a justification to violently clamp down on civilians. Thoughts turn to Bashar’s father and the Hama Massacre of 1982 which was a response to Sunni anti-government uprisings and killed 10,000-20,000 people in one fell swoop.
I believe something like that is still a possibility, but its also possible that the pressure put on the regime thus far has been sufficient to persuade important factions of the military to defect or fully side with the protesters. That has been an essential step in successful revolutions in decades past, and certainly it was the case with Tunisia and Egypt. It presented something of a turning point in Yemen as well. What is needed to avoid a repeat of the mass murder that the Assad regime is certainly capable of, is more stories like this one from Amnesty International, in which Syrian soldiers defied orders to shoot peaceful protesters:
“The officer gave us the order to shoot when the protesters were around 15 or 20 meters away from us… but we – in all, five of us soldiers – immediately said we would not shoot and said to the other soldiers present: ‘How can you shoot at these people? We will not do that.’”
At this point, the soldier told me, the officer in charge of his unit ordered: “Shoot at them”, pointing to those who refused to fire at the protesters, leading to a stand off between the two groups of soldiers.
“They cocked their rifles and so did we… but neither of us pulled the trigger. We then started pushing each other and scuffled a bit… Then the officer fell on the ground. We immediately ran in the direction of the demonstration and held our rifles up in the air so that protesters would know that we weren’t going to shoot at them. When we were close enough so that they could hear us, we shouted to them saying ‘We are not going to shoot you. We are with you.’”
Minutes later, however, the shooting began as other government security forces opened fire on the demonstrators. The soldier said he witnessed several people fall as they were shot, who then were carried away from the scene by other protesters. As he continued marching with the protesters, he saw other soldiers leaving the ranks and joining in support of the demonstration, despite the risks that they could face for disobeying orders and deserting the ranks.
An unfortunate reality for someone like me who despises acquiescence in war crimes is that publicly guaranteeing immunity (at least initially) to the army may actually increase the chances that tyranny ends and peace comes to Syria. History tends to bear this out, as Larry Diamond explained:
Unless the military collapses in defeat, as it did in Greece in 1974 and in Argentina after the Falklands War, it must be persuaded to at least tolerate a new democratic order. In the short run, that means guaranteeing the military significant autonomy, as well as immunity from prosecution for its crimes. Over time, civilian democratic control of the military can be extended incrementally, as was done masterfully in Brazil in the 1980s and in Chile during the 1990s. But if the professional military feels threatened and demeaned from the start, the transition is in trouble.