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'Syria's military is pulling the strings, not the president'

The brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in Syria is intensifying. Some groups estimate that 300 people have been killed in five weeks. DW discussed the unrest with Middle East expert Michael Lüders.

A Syrian protester flashes a V-victory sign with his hand painted in Syrian national colors

The 'V' of victory is a little premature, given the violence

An already bloody government attempt to suppress public protests in Syria appears to be escalating. Soldiers and tanks on Monday reportedly moved into the southern city of Daraa, the base of major demonstrations over the past five weeks. Opposition representatives in the country and human rights groups say government forces have killed over 300 people since March.

The US said on Monday it was mulling sanctions against senior Syrian officials. Meanwhile, one diplomat said Britain, France, Germany and Portugal had submitted a joint appeal to the UN Security Council, asking the body to condemn the violence and urge restraint.

Deutsche Welle discussed this current crackdown with longstanding political scientist and regional expert Michael Lüders.

Deutsche Welle: What's you explanation for the extraordinary brutality the regime is employing against its people?

Michael Lüders: I have the impression that the Syrian regime has really not learned from the past. It seems that the military regime uses the same tactics it used 30 years ago crushing a rebellion - at that time from the Muslim Brethren - in the Syrian city of Hamaa in the center of Syria. More than 25,000 people died, and it seems that the very same logic still prevails among military men, who really control the government in Syria.

Michael Lüders

Author and academic Michael Lüders specializes on Islam and the Middle East

It appears to be the case that it is not Bashar al-Assad, the president, who is telling his generals what they should do. Rather, it is them who tell him that the time for nice words has now passed, and that this issue must now be solved through armed forces.

And yet, the state of emergency was lifted last week. How does that fit in with this crackdown?

Of course, there is no logic whatsoever between these two actions. It is absurd to do away with the military regime of the past, and then to renew it by simply sending troops and tanks onto the streets. But this is really military logic.

We have to keep in mind that the Syrian state is run by this small, religious minority group, the Alawis, and these Alawis - who only make up around six percent of the overall population of about 23 million - they are very fearful of losing power to the Sunni majority in that country. So we are not talking about a country that has a strong and powerful military, it is rather the military that possesses this state.

What we see now is the attempt by the Alawi minority to crush the rebellion of the Sunni majority, and it doesn't really take to much thinking to realize that this logic is unlikely to meet with a good end.

There was western condemnation of Syria over the weekend, can we expect deeds to follow words?

Difficult to say; I think western countries are very reluctant to open a new frontline, so to speak, after Libya. There's also the unresolved issue in Yemen. We really see the Arab world in agony, and I think western countries are very fearful of the geopolitical situation around Syria.

Libya is one thing - it's an important country, an oil-producing country, but it is not so important in geopolitical terms. The opposite is true for Syria. There is Israel, which does have a very strong interest in controlling what is going on in Syria, and the same is true for Iran. Syria has a very strong presence in Lebanon through Hisbollah, 'the party of God.' So it is a very complicated geopolitical surrounding, and it's very difficult for foreign powers to really influence developments on the ground in Syria.

So, in other words, western governments would rather do nothing, than do something that might go wrong?

They will definitely not repeat the exercise that we see in Libya right now, because the situation in Syria is too explosive: Nobody knows what is going to happen after the toppling of the Assad regime, not even Syrian opposition leaders have a clear idea as to what they wish. Of course, they want democracy for good reasons - human rights, et cetera - but should this regime fall, we are talking about anarchy, about the Sunni majority taking revenge for more than 50 years of bloody repression.

Some reports are saying that Syria is sealing off its border with Jordan to stop people leaving the country. That sounds like a recipe for a bloodbath, doesn't it?

Absolutely, that's the logic of the military. They are willing to kill as many people as necessary. But they are mistaken in their belief that they will get away with it. Thirty years ago it was possible to commit a massacre in Hamaa, but at that time the Internet didn't exist. Today, it is not possible to commit atrocities on such a scale without the world getting to know about it - and of course the world will react. I don't see Syria as a state surviving after such a massacre; there is no legitimacy whatsoever for this regime should they really do the worst possible.

And Bashar al-Assad is a sort of tragic figure, because he appears to be benevolent - in the sense that he has understood that military force alone cannot solve the issue at stake here in Syria - but his generals appear to have simply told him: 'You just shut up for the time being! We do the business, you do the talking afterwards.' So it is a very difficult situation for him, and it's an open question whether he will survive politically or not.

Interview: Mark Caldwell
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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