An often-heard sentiment in regional and international capitals has been that, in Syria, it is "the better the devil you know." More recently, there has been the hope that President Bashar Al-Assad will forge what some call "a regime-led transition to democratic reform," even as the killings of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters have mounted in the nearly five-month uprising.
In the lead-up to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that started Monday, there was also a belief, including among Syrians, that the regime would refrain from killing during this period; and that Al-Assad would not repeat his father's 1982 massacre in Hama -- Syria's fourth-largest city -- which killed an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people during a three-week artillery barrage.
The last three days have dispelled all of the above. More than 150 people have been killed -- more than half of them in Hama -- by a merciless "pre-emptive" regime campaign of gratuitous violence. Tanks are again in the center of Hama, and the regime has been shelling the town since Sunday.
Why is this happening, and what can be done to stop it?
The "why" is easy. As Mike Doran and I recently argued, the regime's Alawi-dominated "deep state" (or state within a state, to borrow a phrase from the Turkish experience), comprising the Assad family, its fellow Alawi military and security henchmen and co-opted Sunni administrators and business elites, will do whatever it takes to stay in power.
Faced with a tenacious nationwide protest network that is leaderless and largely Sunni, the "deep state" is having to confront two serious problems: the creeping independence of the provinces from Damascus and a crisis of morale among the largely Sunni conscript soldiers in the regular army. Assad has therefore gone on the attack in Hama and other towns where over the past weeks, there had been huge protests and a growing sense of autonomy. By doing so, he may also be hoping that a descent into sectarian conflict, especially between the elite Alawi units of the Syrian army and its Sunni defectors, may stop the protest movement in its tracks.
These are the acts of a desperate regime. More force will not save it; rather, it will fuel greater resistance and its isolation. In fact, its actions are symptoms of an irreversible slow-motion collapse. But the challenge remains how to stop the regime from killing more of its people, and how to prevent the collapse of the entire country into a state of chaos.
The international response to events in Syria has been woeful. Wednesday's "balanced" press statement -- the weakest of all instruments -- by the United Nations Security Council condemning the use of violence against civilians and human rights abuses, but also against "state institutions," is an indication of that.
The Russians and Chinese have protected Assad while the other BRICS (Brazil, India and South Africa) have acted like spoiled brats upset about the West's military "overreach" on Libya.
Washington and Brussels have grappled for a policy on what to do with Assad. They have relied on nuanced phrases and symbolic actions such as travel bans and asset freezes on Assad, his family and senior military officers to make their point.
There is also talk of an imminent bill in the U.S. Senate that would seek to sanction Syria's oil exports and starve it of much-needed revenue. The U.S. has also outsourced the work to Turkey, which has shown its own limitations in managing Assad. The Arab League, faced with a goliath like Assad's Syria, has been pathetically impotent.
This week, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have gotten tougher in their condemnation of the regime's actions and called for a democratic transition to go forward in Syria. What is not clear, however, is how they would propose that. Obama called for a post-Gadhafi Libya, but he has not called for a post-Assad Syria.
While Wednesday's events in the Security Council show how hard it will be, there is no substitute for more effective international action to pressure and isolate the regime. The target must be the "deep state" that comprises the regime's central pillars.
Members of the Assad family and senior military officers should be referred to the International Criminal Court for egregious violations of international humanitarian law, including crimes against humanity. Travel bans and asset freezes must also target the business leaders who are doing business with both the regime and the outside world. In addition, preventing oil revenues from ending up in the regime's coffers must be a collective, regional and international responsibility; otherwise, it will not work.
Many will say that it is not realistic to expect the Security Council to pass such measures. That may be the case -- for now. With protesters not backing down and the regime fighting for its survival, something will have to give. It is important that a marker is set now, spelling out the kind of action that should be taken.
In parallel to the efforts in the Security Council, Washington should convene a conference of interested powers, in conjunction with Turkey and France, to develop a Syrian "contact group" to coordinate action, including at the United Nations, and devoted to establishing a stable order in the country. Crucially, such a group should seek to involve Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The group would also give a much-needed incentive to help turn elements of the Syrian opposition movement into a future transitional authority.
As many in the Arab and Muslim world sit down to break their daily fasts and conduct nightly prayers, they are turning to the grainy scenes of violence captured on cell phones and broadcast on satellite channels coming from Syria. A sense of revulsion is growing that another Arab despot is using such force to suppress his people in this, the holiest of months. As Saddam Hussein once did, Assad and his regime deserve international pariah status.