The Syrian leader believes that a campaign of mass murder will be his path to victory. Is he right?

BY HASSAN HASSAN | SEPTEMBER 4, 2012

What is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad thinking? Over the past several weeks, his regime has escalated military operations throughout the country — shelling neighborhoods in previously loyal cities, using airplanes to drop what rebel fighters call “TNT barrels” containing hundreds of kilograms worth of explosives, and unleashing its militias to commit gruesome massacres such as the one in the city of Daraya, where more than 400 people were slaughtered on Aug. 27. Approximately 5,000 Syrians were killed in August — making it the deadliest month of the17-monthconflict.

At the same time, the Syrian regime has embarked on a PR offensive. Damascus invited the Independent’s Robert Fisk into the country — allowing him to interview Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, embed with Syrian forces battling insurgents in Aleppo, and interview imprisoned foreign fighters and Syria jihadists. Most prominently, Assad himself granted an interview to the pro-regime Addounia TV on Aug. 29 where he insisted “Syria will return to the Syria before the crisis.”

Western and Arab media dismissed the interview as detached from reality: Assad’s comments appeared to be directed at an outside audience, and he did not offer any concessions to the opposition. But the interview merits a closer look, as it can offer insights into a recent shift in the regime’s thinking and tactics.

In the interview, Assad explained that a recent “public understanding” has allowed the regime to escalate its offensive, unlike during the early stages of the uprising. “Some wanted us to handle that stage as we handle the stage today,” he said. “This is illogical. The stage was different, their [rebels’] modus operandi was different, even the public understanding of what’s happening was different.”

There is of course no public consent as such, but some of Syria’s internal dynamics have shifted in favor of the regime. Many in Syria have made up their minds about standing with the regime until the end. Though some do not support the violence, they believe that blood is a price that has to be paid to prevent the country from lapsing into chaos. Others want a decisive end to the conflict, regardless of who delivers, and currently see the opposition as unable to tip the balance.

The country is more divided than ever. Syrians have largely split into two camps, whereas before there had been a large group in the middle that supported neither the regime nor the opposition. Slipping into the regime camp are mainly minority groups that were previously on the fence — Christians, Druze, and Ismailis– but have grown disenchanted with the rebels. Bassam Haddad, a Syrian commentator and director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, addressed this theme in a recent article, writing, “both camps have solidified into two concrete walls, crushing nuance and humanity.”

The opposition, having clearly failed to unite, present a viable alternative to Assad, and reassure the country’s minorities, is partly to blame for the impasse. Last week, the opposition Syrian National Council was attacked by the Joint Military Council, which claims to represent around 60 percent of fighters, for failing to unite the opposition behind a coherent political alternative. The rebels have also engaged in some atrocious sectarian violence, such asthe killing of five Alawite officers in a police station outside Damascus, while sparing the rest — which three days later led the regime’s militias to slaughter at least 20 of the town’s residents on Aug. 1. International media have also reported extensively on the rise of extremism among the opposition’s fighters, a trend the regime had long highlighted even before it became true.

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