BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faces a dilemma over the city of Hama, crushed by his father a generation ago and now slipping beyond his control.
If he lets protesters stay on the streets, he will see his authority ebb away, but if he sends tanks into the city still scarred by the 1982 massacre, he risks igniting far wider unrest at home and deeper isolation abroad.
Between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed when Hafez al-Assad ordered his troops in to defeat insurgents in Hama, and parts of its old city were razed to the ground.
Twenty-nine years later Hama demonstrators chanting for the overthrow of Bashar still curse the memory of his father, who died in 2000 after ruling Syria for three decades.
“If tanks go into Hama and crush the protests, Syria will ignite from south to north and from east to west,” said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The regime will be isolated internationally, because Hama has historical symbolism.”
Assad’s forces largely disappeared from Hama one month ago after activists said at least 60 protesters were killed when security men fired on crowds of demonstrators.
The security vacuum -- some reports said even traffic police disappeared -- emboldened residents and the weekly protests after Friday prayers grew into huge gatherings.
Last Friday, video footage showed tens of thousands of people in the city’s main square and activists said at least 150,000 people attended the rally demanding Assad’s departure.
The next day Assad sacked the provincial governor and tanks appeared on the outskirts of the city. The tanks stayed outside Hama on Tuesday, but Syrian forces and gunmen loyal to Assad went in and killed 10 people, activists said.
Diplomats say how Assad deals with Hama could determine the direction of Syria’s unrest, at least for the immediate future.
Since the outbreak of protests in March, the 45-year-old president has combined ruthless repression with a series of concessions to demonstrators, including a promise of national dialogue on political reform.
The mix of stick and carrot has often appeared counter-productive, and activists say they cannot hold talks with authorities while killings continue across the country.
”There’s a political track and a security track and they don’t seem to be in synch... Hama is a litmus test,“ a diplomat in Damascus said. ”If the tanks stay on the outskirts and move away eventually, it would seem that the political track has won the day.
“If they continue to stay where they are, making sorties into the center of town, then maybe they are drifting back to the security solution... So what happens there in the next few days will really be key.”
Abdelrahman said the mixed messages from authorities reflected genuine divisions at the top. “There is one wing of the authorities which wants a military solution in Hama and one wing which wants a democratic solution,” he said.
Others said pledges of reform talks were a smokescreen.
“They are calling for dialogue... and at the same time the Syrian army is at the gates of Hama,” said Rime Allaf, associate fellow at Chatham House. “It’s the most blatant illustration of just how insincere the regime is about dialogue.”
License TO KILL
Assad might hesitate to send the army into Hama for fear of alienating Russia and China, veto-holding members of the United Nations Security Council which have so far resisted Western efforts to secure U.N. condemnation of Syria.
“Even (Syria‘s) supporters at the Security Council, Russia and China, even they might baulk at military action in Hama,” the Damascus-based diplomat said.
But analysts say a leadership increasingly focused on “regime survival” is unlikely to be swayed by international criticism.
Reaction to the unrest in Syria, where activists say security forces have shot dead more than 1,300 civilians, has been muted compared to the response to protests in Libya.
While the United States, European Union and other Western nations have imposed sanctions on Assad and senior officials, their repeated warnings over several months that Assad is running out of time are beginning to ring hollow.
“Bashar interprets the international position as one of support for him, because there are no clear messages from the international community yet,” said Lebanese academic Nadim Shehadi. “The international community is divided over Syria.”
“I think Bashar al-Assad thinks he has a license to kill from the international community.”
French parliamentarian Gerard Bapt, head of the French-Syrian friendship committee, said there was also little regional appetite to confront Assad.
“With the Arab League not moving and with a nation like Saudi Arabia saying nothing publicly to condemn the killings by the Syrian regime it is difficult to see international pressure rising beyond the economic,” he told Reuters in Amman.
“Another grand Hama massacre could result in a United Nations resolution, but is unlikely to contain protection for the civilian population, with the West already engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.”
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, editing by Paul Taylor