For months, Bashar Assad has maintained his grip on power in Syria by using brutal force whenever necessary to disrupt protests against his dictatorial rule. Hundreds of dissidents have been killed but the regime has been able to keep order in the main cities of Damascus and Aleppo. The West has been treating this ally of Iran very differently than the dictators of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Assad also may think his strategy of attempting to distract the world from his own depredations with exhibitions such as the staged assault on Israel’s borders to commemorate the anniversary of the Six Day War is working.

But Assad did not count on the protestors having this much staying power or that his forces might actually encounter resistance in some places. Last weekend, reports say the army was forced to call in helicopter gunships to mow down demonstrators in the northern town of  Jisr al-Shughour. But the news today that approximately 120 police and security personnel were killed in fighting there is a sign of two things.

One is that resistance to the regime may be growing rather than receding as Assad had hoped.

The other is that the blood shed in Syria by the regime so far may be only the prelude to a general massacre of dissidents that will rival the slaughter of at least 10,000 at Hama in 1982 committed by Assad’s father Hafez.

It bears repeating that the situation in Syria is nothing like that of the other countries where the Arab Spring protests have met with some success. The entire government is connected to the Assad clan and the minority Alawite sect. Thus, there is very little chance that the armed forces will restrain the regime or even topple it. Ties of blood and complicity in decades of crimes bind all those connected to the power structure. And unlike some other tyrannies, the leaders of Syria have clearly not lost their taste for spilling blood if that’s what it takes to suppress dissent.

We don’t know exactly what happened today and we can’t be sure of the state of the opposition. But we do know that the Assad clan will do anything to hold onto power in Syria. The full measure of the regime’s capacity for atrocity may not yet be felt. The Obama administration has downplayed the truth about Syria up until now even as it has pledged not to stand by while innocents are slaughtered. As much as Assad may feel his opponents are testing him, the situation in Syria is also a test of Obama’s seriousness about human rights and his support for freedom in the Islamic world.

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