Is Syria Hopeless?

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With military forces massacring civilians unopposed and the international community divided, nothing short of a mass humanitarian awakening among security forces is likely to save Syria

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Amateur video shows Syrian protesters fleeing from security forces in Damascus. Reuters

In 1982, Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad sent his military to put down a revolt in the city of Hama. His began by shelling the city with artillery and bombing it from the air, then sent in tanks and paratroopers. Many civilians who had not been killed in the initial attack starved, were killed attempting to flee, or were shot in the purges that immediately followed the siege. When Assad learned that terrified survivors were hiding out in the tunnel system, he blocked off the entrances with tanks, then had the tunnels soaked with gasoline and lit on fire. The three-week assault killed an estimated 20,000 civilians and suddenly ended an uprising that had slowly grown for six years. The act, which drew vast international condemnation but little international action, shut down dissent and allowed Assad to rule until the day of his death 18 years later.

The Democracy ReportThree decades after the Hama massacre, son and successor Bashar al-Assad has so far killed over one thousand civilians (estimates, impossible to verify, range up from there) in a popular uprising still only a few months old. He has sent tanks and helicopter gunships to several cities, including Hama, killing scores for simply marching peacefully in the streets. One town, Jisr al-Shoughour, is now almost completely abandoned after fighting that sent thousands of refugees fleeing into Turkey. In a move so horrific it is nearly without precedent in modern conflict, Syrian forces have begun abducting children, torturing them to the point of death, and returning their mutilated corpses as warnings. Amateur videos out of the country show troops shooting unarmed civilians who plead "peacefully," beating old men for no other apparent reason than sadism, and opening fire into crowds.

As with his father 29 years earlier, little appears to stand between Assad and his apparent goal of holding on to power at nearly any cost, no matter how many civilians he kills. Syria's security forces are too brutal, too centralized, and too powerful for unarmed civilians to effectively resist, as they did in Tunisia. The military, unlike Egypt's, has not hesitated to turn its guns against civilians, and shows little sign of breaking away as happened in Libya. Unlike in Yemen, there is no opposition movement strong enough to challenge the state either politically or militarily.

The international community is poorly equipped to help. Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced what she called Syria's "appalling and revolting acts against its own citizens" -- incredibly strong language for the normally restrained State Department, and likely a signal that the U.S. is preparing to take a tougher stance -- the U.S. has few options. It had already imposed strong sanctions on Syria before the uprisings began, leaving the U.S. with few diplomatic inroads or threats it can credibly make. The international coalition that lined up against Libya has since collapsed; it appears the UN Security Council may not even have the votes for a resolution simply condemning Assad.

If there is a hope for Syria it lies not with NATO bombers as in Libya, not with the power of civil society as in Tunisia, not with a military coup as in Egypt, not with the U.S. diplomatic push that could change Bahrain, and not with already-present militant groups like those steering Yemen's future. Syria's hope lies in something far more fundamental, more universal, and more difficult for outside actors like the U.S. to guide: the basic humanity of individual members of the Syrian security forces. Assad's power is totally incumbent on the willingness of his military. How long until troops and officers put down their guns, step out of their tanks and torture rooms, and refuse to go on?

In the Milgram psychological experiments of the 1960s, researchers at Yale found that the human capacity for brutality is nearly limitless when done at the behest of an authority figure. In the experiments, a subject would be seated at a control panel, which they were told could be used to give electric shocks to a man in another room. The experimenter would order the subject to give increasingly severe electric shocks. Though the man in the other room -- secretly an actor who was actually in no pain -- would scream for mercy, the randomly selected subjects -- normal people off the streets -- would often be willing to knowingly torture or even kill him if ordered to do so. The experiment, as well as similar experiments performed elsewhere, consistently find that about two in three people are willing to continue with the electric shocks even when the actor begs for his life, complains of a "heart condition," and goes silent.

Unconfirmed reports out of Jisr al-Shoughour suggest that small numbers of security forces may have turned against the regime that was ordering it to massacre unarmed civilians. The Milgram experiments, as well as the open sadism so far displayed by the Syrian military, suggest that the world probably should not expect Syrian forces to become conscientious objectors en masse and overnight, that they will continue to kill, driven by a regime adept at exploiting the human propensity for obedience. But a kind of mass humanitarian awakening among the security forces, as unlikely as it may be and as absurd as it may sound, could well be Syria's only hope.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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