Over the past several months, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has wavered between trying to appease protestors and cracking down on them. Neither tactic has been particularly effective.
Today, it seems the current President has finally reverted to the tactics his father employed so ruthlessly, yet effectively, in the 1980s, when he killed nearly 20,000 people in Hama.
Residents of Dara’a, a town of 75,000 people in southern Syria, reported that at least 8 tanks moved into the town at dawn accompanied by 4,000 to 6,000 troops. However, other estimates pointed to troop numbers in the hundreds.
Depending on the mission of Syrian forces, the ideal ratio to maintain an occupation of the town would be 1 soldier for every 25 civilians based an old RAND study of occupied Germany and Japan. Such an operation would therefore require about 3,000 troops.
That said, the number of troops is likely in the hundreds if the eight tanks observed are any indication of the mission’s overall effort. Since Syrian forces are typically arrayed in the old Soviet model, 8-10 tanks are indicative of a Motorized Rifle Battalion-sized element, which would likely include 300-400 infantrymen.
Either way, the deployment of armor is a noteworthy escalation in the crisis, which leads one to believe that the “peaceful” protestors may actually be well-armed. Based on the posture of the soldiers in the above BBC video, it seems clear that the Syrian Army is fighting an armed opposition.
Like Libya, it appears Syria is either in the midst or on the verge of a full-blown civil war, with the country Alawite ruling minority fighting for its survival against the Sunni majority.
Like Libya, there does not seem to be a good side, only two sides bent on exterminating each other.
Rather than intervening, the best policy for the United States would be to let Syria exhaust its resources in trying to put down an internal rebellion. Choosing one side over the other would be foolish at this point.