Amid Waning Support, Syria’s Assad Defends Crackdown Against ‘Outlaws’

By Patrick Goodenough | August 8, 2011 | 5:06 AM EDT

A refugee camp set up for Syrians who fled the violence in their country, in Turkey’s Hatay province. Some 7,500 Syrians are currently sheltering in Turkey. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

( – Despite witnessing a slow erosion of support from usually sympathetic quarters, a defiant Syrian President Bashar Assad insisted Sunday that his security forces’ crackdown on dissent was in keeping with the state’s duty to act against “outlaws.”

“To deal with outlaws who cut off roads, seal towns and terrorize residents is a duty of the state which must defend security and protect the lives of civilians,” Assad said during a meeting with visiting Lebanese foreign minister Adnan Mansur, the official SANA news agency reported.

Assad has for months disputed the widely-held view of the events in Syria – where media coverage is curtailed – blaming “armed gangs” for violence against both security forces and civilians. In the deadliest week in the four-and-a-half month crisis, more than 300 people are reported to have been killed since Ramadan began last Monday.

Mansur, who represents a government dominated by Syria’s ally, Hezbollah, assured Assad that Lebanon remained firmly opposed to foreign attempts to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs.

That foreign “interference” moved closer to home at the weekend. Three days after the U.N. Security Council finally issued a statement condemning the violence, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on Saturday expressed concern over the “mounting violence and the excessive use of force which resulted in killing and wounding large numbers.”

Then on Sunday, the 22-member Arab League (AL) ended its long silence on the matter, with secretary-general Nabil Al-Arabi in a statement voicing “growing concern and strong distress over the deteriorating security conditions in Syria due to escalating violence and military operations” in various parts of the country.

Although Al-Arabi also said there was “still a chance for the reforms that were announced by President Bashar al-Assad to be accomplished,” his statement did mark a shift for the AL.

Just three weeks ago, Al-Arabi said during a visit to Damascus that the AL does “not accept foreign interference in the internal affairs of the Arab countries” – implicitly criticizing President Obama who a day earlier said Assad had lost “legitimacy in the eyes of his people.”

The AL’s response to the Syrian crackdown differed significantly from its approach to the violence in Libya, where it called for international intervention last March after suspending Muammar Gaddafi’s regime’s membership.

‘Stop the killing machine’

Hours after Al-Arabi’s statement on Sunday, Saudi King Abdullah struck an even deeper blow to Assad, becoming the first Arab leader to withdraw his country’s ambassador from Damascus.

The decision was announced in a form of a letter to “our brothers in Syria” in which Abdullah demanded an end to “the killing machine and bloodshed.” He urged reforms that were not mere pledges but were “actually achieved so that our brothers the citizens in Syria can feel them in their lives as dignity, glory and pride.”

In this television image on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011 the debris-strewn streets of Hama are eerily quiet after what the official news agency SANA described as the restoration by the Syrian army of “security and stability” to the central Syrian. (AP Photo/SANA)

Syria faced two future options, he said: “Either it chooses wisdom willingly, or drifts into the depths of chaos and loss, may Allah forbid.”

(Saudi Arabia itself a far from democratic; the king defused low-level “Arab spring”-type protests earlier this year by announced a spending package worth billions of dollars that included financial assistance for unemployed Saudis, help for first-time home buyers, and the promise of tens of thousands of new jobs in the security forces.)

No other Arab state has announced similar steps in response to the Syrian crisis, although Saudi Arabia often leads the way in the GCC.

Qatar last week suspended operations at its embassy in Damascus, but that was in response to the mission coming under attack from pro-Assad demonstrators protesting the Qatar-based al-Jazeera network’s coverage of the situation.

Hundreds of Kuwaitis demonstrated outside the Syrian Embassy in Kuwait City on Friday, calling for the ambassador’s expulsion and the recall of Kuwait’s envoy from Damascus.

Likely more troubling for the Syrian regime than protests in the smaller Gulf states is neighboring Turkey’s continuing shift away from a close partnership Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan established with Assad in recent years.

In his most trenchant criticism yet of the violence in Syria, Erdogan said Saturday Turkey’s patience was running low.

“We cannot sit back and watch the events unfold in Syria,” he said, announcing that he was sending Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Damascus on Tuesday to convey “a decisive message.”

Assad’s spokeswoman, Buthaina Shaaban, hit back Sunday. SANA quoted her as saying that if Davutoglu planned to deliver strong words he would hear even stronger ones in return, “regarding the Turkish stance which failed to condemn the brutal killing and crimes committed by the armed terrorist groups against the civilians, military and police members until now.”

Around 7,500 Syrian refugees who crossed the border to flee the violence are being accommodated in temporary tent sites in Turkey.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow