The images we have seen on television screens of tanks entering Daraa, the Syrian city which sparked the widespread pro-democracy protests, means that the authorities in Damascus have taken a strategic decision to resort to force, in order to impose their will and stifle the uprising.
Over the past six weeks, from the beginning of the uprising demanding democracy and freedoms in Syria, authorities have resorted to a combination of force and political decisions designed to accommodate some of the demands, such as the abolition of the emergency law and the state security court, allowing demonstrations, and dismissing several governors and security officials. However, this was not enough to quell the protests, for numerous reasons, firstly because these decisions were not reflected on the streets, where authorities continued to fire on demonstrators. Secondly, these decisions were made at the last minute and under pressure, at a time when all confidence was lost, and no one was prepared to give an opportunity [to the government] to see whether these decisions would have a real effect or not.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the uprising soon had clear political demands. The ceilings of these demands quickly reached the extent of calling for the abolition of an article in the constitution, stipulating the dominance of the Baath party over the country. This means that the protestors want a genuine political change shaking the pillars and interests that have stood for decades, establishing an entirely new social and political scene.
As in other Arab countries, the original ceiling on the protestors demands was low, namely freedom and justice. Protestors bet on the possibility that development and reform could be achieved through the regime itself and its response to their demands, but then the damage began when the authorities responded with repression and bullets. When the blood began to flow the people lost their sense of fear, and began to challenge and raise the ceiling of their demands to overthrow the regime. This [escalation] was successful in Tunisia and Egypt, because the military institutions there refused to fire on their people, but the situation in Libya met with difficulties in Libya and transformed into an armed conflict. The same thing is happening in Syria, which has opened the door to a scenario similar to that which is happening in Libya today, or divisions taking place within the [Syrian] regime itself.
Force has its limits; no ruling system can control its people with just tanks, especially if the protest movement has been able to mobilize the streets en masse. The use of force changes the equation of governance, because the tank driver in the streets knows that the fate of the palace is in his hands.
Just as tanks and bullets frighten people; these methods also come with risks, for they push the other party to resort to arms, which is what happened in Libya. The use of force to confront peaceful protests will also weaken the legitimacy of the ruler, and subject him to the constant threat of his people. It does not solve the problem, but only defers it, costing a high price in bloodshed as well as creating unrest and hostility.
It is difficult to predict what might happen now, because information is scarce. A media blackout has been imposed to prevent us gaining a true picture of what is happening on the ground, the nature of the use of force, and who is actually making the decisions. The question that arises is, to what extent will this use of force be able to remain coherent, if the protests and bloodshed continue? Has this been possible in the past?
The answer can be found in the history books.