On August 18, 2011, President Obama finally called for Assad to step aside. This measure was too little and too late but still better late than never. President Obama also coordinated with France, Britain, Germany, and the EU to issue similar statements calling for Assad to step aside. This declaration is not likely to have much impact in terms of changing the underlying dynamics inside Syria, but it is still morally important.
Syrian protestors seem to have reached a stalemate with the Assad regime. The protestors are continuing to demonstrate against the regime in many parts of the country including Hama, Homs, and Idlib in courageous and creative ways. However, the peaceful protests alone don’t seem capable of toppling the regime in the absence of a major split in the army. And unfortunately this split does not appear to be happening. The reason is that although hundreds if not thousands of largely Sunni conscripts are now refusing to fire on their countrymen, the Assad regime knows it can rely upon the support of the loyal 4th division which is commanded by President Assad’s brother Maher al Assad and is primarily Alawite in character.
The experience of the 61st Brigade of the Fifth Division is indicative of the profound challenges facing the opposition. General Rifaii, head of the 61st Brigade, refused to fire on protestors along with his officers and soldiers. The regime responded by planting a trap for him. They told him to send his forces to Daraa and not to fire on protestors. Instead members of the loyal 4th Division murdered the defectors in the 61st Brigade. The Syrian Free Army might have up to 6,000 troops with its largest strength in Idlib and some support in Homs and Daraa, but it doesn’t seem capable of meaningfully challenging the regime. The example of the five defecting soldiers of the SFA who were murdered by Assad loyalists tragically reflects the weak position of the SFA compared with the Assad regime.
According to a Syrian defector, military officers who refuse to fire on civilians are being murdered every Monday at the military prisons in Tedmor and Saadnaya. In response, Syrian democrats and their supporters should organize protests in person and using social media every Monday to draw global public attention to these atrocities and express solidarity with the protestors. The courage of Muhammad Watfeh, an Alawite recruit in the Republican Guard who was murdered on Friday August 19, 2011, for refusing to fire on protestors, needs to be noted and honored. http://syrianrevolutiondigest.blogspot.com/2011/08/homs-defiant.html
Meanwhile, even as 551 protestors were murdered during Ramadan and 130 were slaughtered on the eve of Ramadan, the opposition continues to show disturbing signs of disorganization and disarray. The opposition considered one of three possible steps and in the end was unable to effectively implement any of them. The first and least popular choice was to ally with an existing opposition group. The second option was to reject the traditional opposition groups and form a small group of exiles to represent the opposition in discussions with foreign governments. This approach would have meant postponing the formation of a transitional council until the regime fell. This approach makes the most sense to me and to Mr. Abdulhamid.
The third option was to attempt to form a transitional council. The council chose this option but the problem was apparently that they couldn’t agree on a list of names for members of the council. The opposition’s lack of unity is a major weakness which plays directly into the regime’s hands.
I strongly support regime change and freedom in Syria but do not see any short-term prospects for achieving this objective. Unfortunately I agree with Stephen Schwartz’s assessement that “Syria has failed to produce a force capable of challenging Al-Assad's army, and a rebel body with such potential will not come into being simply because Syrian oppositionists or their numerous and righteous foreign sympathizers wish it to be so.” http://www.islamicpluralism.org/1874/is-the-taking-of-tripoli-the-turning-point As long as Assad retains the support of the Alawite minority, he will be able to hang on to power no matter how many sanctions are imposed upon him. His regime has been shaken by the protests but sadly shows no sign of collapse.
On Saturday, August 27, the Syrian regime brazenly attacked worshippers at the Al Rifa’I mosque in Damascus, killing two people and injuring 12 others. The mosque leader, 80 year old Shaykh Usama Al-Rifa'I, is a well-respected Sunni religious leader and also a prominent Sufi. He was injured in the attack after reportedly signing a declaration by 19 Sunni leaders which marked the opening of Ramadan by protesting the regime’s repression. He also criticized the regime during his June 17th Friday sermon http://www.islamicpluralism.org/1876/sufi-mosque-attacked-by-assad-thugs-in-damascus-2. Up until now, the Sunni religious establishment and the Sufi community have remained allied with the regime. It remains to be seen whether the Sunni and Sufi religious communities begin to break away from the regime in the aftermath of this Ramadan attack on a well-respected Sufi mosque.