Syria Calls for Arab League Emergency Meeting

November 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Martin Chulov in Beirut

Syria has called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League after the regional body announced it will suspend Damascus from its membership ranks on Wednesday and impose sanctions – a move that has sharply escalated tensions across the region.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad wants the urgent meeting held before the suspension is due to take effect. Syrian officials made the demand after a night of apparently sponsored violence against the diplomatic missions of states that had voted to punish it because of a crackdown against demonstrators in defiance of an earlier understanding.

On Saturday night, protesters stormed the Saudi Arabian and Turkish embassies in Damascus and the Qatari mission in nearby Beirut, prompting Turkey and Saudi Arabia to withdraw non-essential diplomats and their families.

Turkey has also demanded compensation for damage to its embassy and warned its citizens against travelling across its southern border.

Last month, the US also withdrew its ambassador after the US embassy was twice stormed by a crowd.

The British Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt, condemned the latest embassy attacks on Sunday. “By allowing these attacks to take place, the Syrian regime is demonstrating yet again that its first response is repression and intimidation,” he said. “This cycle of violence must stop now for the sake of the Syrian people and for those who support them.”

Turkey called on the international community to stop the bloodshed in Syria, a demand that appeared to leave open the possibility of some kind of intervention.

An unnamed Syrian official told the state news agency Sana on Sunday that Arab League monitors could travel to the country to assess the situation before the suspension is due to take effect on 16 November.

Such a concession had been a key demand of the body, which two weeks ago thought it had struck a broad deal with Damascus to end the violence.

However, clashes have intensified since then, with daily death tolls often of more than 20 people, meaning November – the eighth month of the Syrian uprising – is likely to be its bloodiest yet.

A large pro-regime rally saw thousands turn out in central Damascus on Sunday in what was cast as a spontaneous mass display of backing for Assad, whose support base remains stronger in the capital and in the commercial hub of Aleppo than in the third and fourth cities, Hama and Homs. Daily clashes there between troops and protesters underline a deepening divide with ever-sharpening sectarian dimensions.

Syria is ruled by the Assad clan, hailing from the Allawite sect, which has close ties to Shia Islam. The Allawites account for around 12% of all Syrians, but are deeply entwined into the establishment.
Other minorities include Christians, Druze and Kurds. However, the bulk of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, whom the regime fears have drawn strength from successful revolts in the Sunni states of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The effect of Syria’s suspension is not yet clear, and neither are the type of sanctions that the Arab League may impose. The organisation’s secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi, said on Sunday that he is “studying mechanisms” to protect Syrian people.

He left open the possibility of again referring Syria to the UN security council, where Syrian allies Russia and China last month blocked a move that had threatened to bring security council sanctions.
Arabi said the league did not have the means to act alone.

Despite its relative lack of clout, the Arab League move is significant on the global stage, where European and US policymakers had been struggling to craft a means of stopping the violence in Syria without causing a collapse in regional stability.

Without the cover from the Arab League that the US received in March, Barack Obama would have been much less likely to authorise the use of the US military in the early stages of the Libyan operation – an essential element of the ultimately succesful Nato operation.

The move against Syria – only the second of its kind in the history of the 22-state organisation – is likely to embolden states opposed to the regime but fearful of the knock-on effects of the fall of Assad.

Isolation is not sitting well with Assad or Syria’s key patron, Iran.

Both states have warned of “dire consequences” if more pressure is piled on the regime, and insisted that the relentless protests are foreign-backed and being led by militant Sunni Islamists.

Guardian.co.uk

France Recalls Syria Envoy

November 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – France recalled its ambassador to Damascus and Syria’s suspension from the Arab League took effect on Wednesday, intensifying diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to halt a violent eight-month-old crackdown on protests.

Syrian army defectors attacked an intelligence complex on the edge of Damascus in a high-profile assault that showed how close the popular uprising is to sliding into armed conflict.

Hours after the Arab League suspension took effect, Assad supporters threw stones and debris at the embassy of the United Arab Emirates and smeared its walls with graffiti, witnesses said. The embassy is in one of the most secure districts of the capital, near Assad’s home and offices.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France was working with the Arab League on a draft resolution at the United Nations.

Last month Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Damascus, but since then the normally cautious Arab League has suspended Syria for failing to implement an Arab peace plan.

“New violence is taking place and that has led to the closure of the missions in Aleppo and Latakia and to recall our ambassador to Paris,” Juppe said, referring to weekend attacks by pro-Assad demonstrators on French diplomatic premises, as well as Turkish and Saudi missions, in Syria.

Arab foreign ministers met in Rabat for an Arab-Turkish forum, where a Syrian flag was placed by an empty chair.

Turkey, now a fierce critic of its former ally, said Syria had failed to honor an Arab peace plan to halt the unrest.

Speaking through a translator, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu compared Syria with Libya, where rebels captured, humiliated and killed Muammar Gaddafi last month.

“The regime should meet the demands of its people,” he said. “The collective massacres in Syria and … the bloodshed cannot continue like this.”

IRAN DEFENDS SYRIA

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi criticized the Arab League for “acting in a way that will hurt the security of the region.” He told the official news agency IRNA that Syria, an ally of Iran since 1980, had repeatedly pledged to meet legitimate popular demands and enact reforms.

“Unfortunately, some countries believe that they are outside the crisis … but they are mistaken because if a crisis happens they will be entangled by its consequences.”

Saudi Arabia, which is eager to loosen the ties between its regional rival Iran and Syria, said the Arab League was acting in Syria’s interest, not interfering in its affairs.

“What’s important is not about suspending or not suspending (Syria from the League), it’s stopping the bloodshed, starting the dialogue, and withdrawing troops from Syrian cities,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told Al Arabiya channel.

Western countries have tightened sanctions on Syria and on Monday Jordan’s King Abdullah became the first Arab head of state to urge Assad to quit after ensuring a smooth handover.

In the early months of the uprising, attempts by security forces to crush mainly peaceful protests accounted for most of the violence. But since August there has been a growing number of reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting back.

Activists said Free Syrian Army fighters fired machineguns and rockets at a large Air Force Intelligence complex on the northern edge of the capital at about 7:30 p.m. EST.

A gunfight ensued and helicopters circled over the complex, on the Damascus-Aleppo highway. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Syrian state media did not mention the attack.

The U.S. State Department said it had few details and no direct confirmation of the incident, but blamed Assad’s crackdown on protesters.

“It’s not surprising that we are now seeing this kind of violence,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “We don’t condone it in any way, shape or form. But let’s be very clear that it is the brutal tactics of Assad and his regime in dealing with what began as a non-violent movement is now taking Syria down a very dangerous path.”

“HUGELY SYMBOLIC”

A Western diplomat in Damascus described the assault as “hugely symbolic and tactically new,” saying that if the reported details were true it would be “much much more coordinated than anything we have seen before.”

“To actually attack a base like this is something else, and so close to Damascus as well,” said the diplomat, adding that fighting in recent weeks involving army deserters in the town of Rastan and the city of Homs resembled a localized civil war.

“It’s not a nationwide civil war, but in very specific locations, it is looking like that,” said the diplomat.

The Free Syrian Army was set up by deserters and is led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who is based in southern Turkey.

It announced this week that it had formed a “temporary military council” of nine defecting officers, led by Asaad.

The statement said the Syrian Free Army aimed to “bring down the regime and protect citizens from the repression … and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls,” adding that it would form a military court to try “members of the regime who are proven to have been involved in killing operations.”

Syrian television showed thousands of Assad’s supporters rallying in Damascus and Latakia to mark the day his father Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970. It said the crowds were also voicing their rejection of the Arab League’s decision.

“God, Syria, Bashar, that’s all!” demonstrators shouted in central Damascus after turning out in heavy rain to wave flags and posters of the president. Two large posters of Assad and his father hung from a building. “Neither rain nor sanctions will stop us expressing our nationalism,” they said, according to the television report.

The Arab League has stopped short of calling for Assad’s departure or proposing any Libya-style military intervention, but its ostracism of Syria is a blow to a country whose ruling Baath party puts Arab nationalism at the center of its credo.

Syrian authorities have banned most independent media. They blame the unrest on “armed terrorist gangs” and foreign-backed militants who they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.
Hundreds of people have been killed this month, one of the bloodiest periods of the revolt.

Syria says it remains committed to the Arab peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of troops from urban areas, the release of prisoners and a dialogue with the opposition.

State media said more than 1,000 prisoners, including prominent dissident Kamal Labwani, were freed on Tuesday. But human rights campaigners say tens of thousands have been detained since anti-Assad protests began.

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US: Some Arab Leaders Offered Haven for Assad

November 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Some Arab leaders have told the United States they are willing to provide safe haven to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hasten his “inevitable” departure from power, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.

Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman did not identify the countries that had offered a place for Assad to go after seven months of protests against his rule in Syria.

“Almost all the Arab leaders, foreign ministers who I talk to say the same thing: Assad’s rule is coming to an end. It is inevitable,” Feltman, who is in charge of near eastern affairs, told a Senate panel.
“Some of these Arabs have even begun to offer Assad safe haven to encourage him to leave quickly,” Feltman said. He hoped Assad and his inner circle would “head for the exits voluntarily.”

Assad has shown no sign of leaving. Syrian troops shot dead eight protesters and injured 25 in Damascus earlier Wednesday, activists said, in one of the bloodiest incidents in the capital since the upraising against Assad began.

More than 60 people have been killed by the army and security forces just since last week, when Assad’s government signed a peace plan sponsored by the Arab League.

Western governments led by the United States have called on Assad to leave power. Feltman said the United States would continue to support the Syrian opposition while diplomatically and financially pressuring the regime, “until Assad is gone.”

U.S. and European financial sanctions were “tightening the financial noose around the (Assad) regime,” he added.

But the United States did not seek militarization of the conflict: “Syria is not Libya.”

Washington favored multilateral sanctions on Syria at the United Nations, Feltman said, adding that if Russia and China continued to block a Security Council resolution condemning Syria, Washington would consider other steps.

The United States favored European-led efforts to introduce a resolution in the U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee that would insist on access to Syria for internationally recognized human rights monitors, Feltman said.

He feared the transition to democracy in Syria could be long and difficult, and had no answer when Senator Richard Lugar asked who might replace Assad once he is gone.

“That’s one of the real challenges, because the opposition in Syria is still divided,” Feltman said.

Feltman said the U.S. Commerce Department was investigating whether Internet-blocking equipment made by a U.S. company, Blue Coat Systems Inc, had made its way to Syria, which is subject to strict U.S. trade embargoes.

Blue Coat, of Sunnyvale, California, said in a statement on its website that some of its equipment apparently had been “transferred illegally “ to Syria, but that it did not know who was using the devices or exactly how. It said the company was cooperating with the U.S. government investigation. News reports have said Syria is using the equipment as part of its crackdown on protests to monitor and block Internet traffic.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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Assad Meets Arab ministers; 20 Killed in Clashes

October 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 20 people died in clashes and strikes paralyzed parts of Syria, as President Bashar al-Assad met Arab ministers seeking to end months of violence and authorities held a mass rally to show support for him.

The official state news agency quoted the head of the Arab League delegation, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, as saying the talks on Wednesday were “cordial and frank” and that the ministers would meet Syrian officials again on October 30.

In the central city of Homs, a hotbed of opposition to Assad, people held a general strike to protest against his crackdown on seven months of unrest, in which the United Nations says 3,000 people have been killed.

Residents and activists said most employees stayed at home and shops were closed in the city of one million. One resident said armed opponents of Assad enforced the strike. Army gunfire, which killed 11 people across Syria on Wednesday, also kept people off the streets.

Residents and activists said most employees stayed at home and shops were closed in the city of one million. One resident said insurgents enforced the strike. Army gunfire, which killed 11 people across Syria on Wednesday, also kept people off the streets.

In the town of Hamrat, north of Homs, suspected army deserters killed nine soldiers in an attack on a bus with a rocket-propelled grenade, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It was the latest incident in an armed insurgency emerging alongside the campaign of street protests.

Assad faces international pressure over his crackdown, with the United States and the European Union slapping sanctions on Syrian oil exports and businesses, helping drive the economy into recession.

“This will end with the fall of the regime. It is nearly unavoidable,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Wednesday.

“But unfortunately it could take time because the situation is complex, because there is a risk of civil war between Syrian factions, because surrounding Arab countries do not want us to intervene,” he told French radio.

ARAB MISSION

In Umayyad Square in central Damascus, tens of thousands of people gathered for what has become a weekly show of support for Assad organized by authorities.

State television showed them waving Syrian flags and portraits of the president, saying they were rallying under the slogan “Long live the homeland and its leader.”

The rally took place before the envoys from six Arab nations arrived in Damascus for talks with Assad following their call on October 16 for the opposition and government to hold a dialogue within 15 days at the League headquarters in Cairo.

“What is hoped is that the violence will end, a dialogue will start and reforms will be achieved,” Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said of the delegation, which is led by Qatar and also includes Egypt, Algeria, Oman, Sudan and Yemen.

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Obama, Erdogan Seek Common Ground on Middle East

September 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Spetalnick and Laura MacInnis

2011-09-20T213040Z_276114503_GM1E79L0FIG01_RTRMADP_3_OBAMA-TURKEY

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shake hands in New York September 20, 2011. World leaders have gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.  

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sought common ground on counterterrorism and Middle East policy on Tuesday even as Washington pressed Ankara to ease tensions with close U.S. ally Israel.

Their talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly came as a showdown loomed this week over Palestinian statehood at the world body, another source of rising tensions in a region in political upheaval.

Washington has watched with concern as NATO ally Turkey’s once-friendly ties with Israel have deteriorated rapidly over Israel’s 2010 killing of Turkish activists in a Gaza-bound aid convoy. The crisis has underscored Israel’s growing isolation and the new limits of U.S. influence in the Middle East.

“The president underscored his interest in seeing a resolution of that issue between those two countries and encouraged continuing work toward that end,” White House adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall told reporters after the meeting, saying Obama also emphasized the need to calm tensions throughout the region.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama would make the same points to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he meets him on Wednesday.

The two leaders also discussed Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s unrelenting crackdown on anti-government protests has alarmed neighboring Turkey and led to U.S. calls he step aside.

Obama and Erdogan agreed on the need to increase pressure on Assad and agreed to consult on possible further steps that “could include sanctions, political pressure, other measures,” Rhodes said.

Obama and Erdogan, in their public comments to reporters, focused on deadly attacks in Turkey on Tuesday that they agreed underscored the need for cooperation on counterterrorism.

“This reminds us that terrorism exists in many parts of the world, and Turkey and the United States are going to be strong partners in preventing terrorism,” Obama said.

An explosion from a suspected car bomb ripped through a street in the Turkish capital, Ankara, near a neighborhood housing government buildings, killing three people.

Also on Tuesday, Kurdish guerrillas attacked a police college in southeastern Turkey, killing four people in a passing vehicle, broadcaster CNN Turk reported on its website.

NEED ‘TO WORK TOGETHER’

Erdogan said the United States and Turkey needed to “work together in planning, use technology so that we can continue to take more steps in trying to fight against terrorism.”

Turkey is in talks with the United States to provide a base for a fleet of U.S. Predator drones now stationed in Iraq. It is reported to want surveillance drones to carry out operations against Kurdish separatist rebels based in northern Iraq.

The Obama administration is seeking to preserve close ties with Turkey, an increasingly assertive economic and military power in the region that has become a champion of democracy movements roiling the Arab world.

Ankara backed efforts that led to the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and aids U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan, and plays a crucial role in neighboring Iraq.

Obama praised Erdogan for “great leadership” in promoting democracy in the region. But problems remain.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Turkey on Monday not to do anything to worsen its relationship with Israel.

Israeli-Turkish relations have spiraled downward in recent weeks with the release of a U.N. report on the 2010 flotilla raid, in which Israeli commandos raid killed nine Turkish activists, and Israel’s refusal to apologize to Ankara.

Erdogan’s government has expelled Israel’s envoy, frozen military cooperation and warned that the Turkish navy could escort future aid flotillas — raising the prospect of confrontation between Turkey and the Jewish state.

Erdogan has also kept up a stream of harsh rhetoric against Israel, using a tour of Arab states last week to support a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations and chide Israel as a spoiled client of the West.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney)

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Eid Protests Across Syria Defy Tanks and Troops

September 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Security forces shot dead four demonstrators on Tuesday as people streamed out of mosques after prayers to mark the end of Ramadan and renewed protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, activists and residents said.

The victims, who included a 13-year-old boy, were killed in the towns of al-Hara and Inkhil in southern Deraa province.

Demonstrations broke out elsewhere across the country, notably in Damascus suburbs, the city of Homs, 165 km (100 miles to the north) and the northwestern province of Idlib, the sources said.

“The people want the downfall of the president,” protesters shouted in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, where activists said dozens of soldiers defected at the weekend after refusing to shoot at the crowds.

In the adjacent Saqba suburb a crowd held their shoes up in the air — an insulting gesture in the Arab world — and chanted anti-Assad slogans.

According to one activist group, troops have killed at least 551 civilians during Ramadan, the holiest period in the Islamic calendar.

Five months into the street uprising against his rule, Assad, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, is facing more frequent demonstrations. Protesters have been encouraged by the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, with whom Assad had close ties, and rising international pressure on the ruling hierarchy.

The Obama administration froze the U.S. assets of Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and two other Syrian officials on Tuesday in response to Assad’s increasingly bloody crackdown.

The Treasury Department also named Ali Abdul Karim Ali, Syria’s Ambassador to Lebanon, where Assad wields influence through the Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrilla group, and his adviser Bouthaina Shaaban.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States had imposed the sanctions on the three because of the “role that they play in propagating and advancing the reign of terror that Assad is exacting on their own people.”

Moualem and Shaaban have appeared in the media defending military assaults on towns and cities, saying Syrian forces were pursuing “terrorists.” They are not part of Assad’s decision-making inner circle, composed of his younger brother Maher, other family members and top security officials already on the U.S. sanctions list.

Opposition figures in Syria see international pressure as crucial to stripping Assad of legitimacy and in helping raise the momentum of peaceful protests.

Residents and activists are reporting increasing defections among Syrian troops, drawn mostly from the Sunni majority population but dominated by Alawite officers effectively under the command of Maher.

In the capital, YouTube footage showed soldiers from core units roaming the center in green public transport buses, their AK-47s hanging out from the doors, to prevent protests, which broke out nonetheless in Qaboun, Kfar Souseh, Rukn al-Din and Maydan districts, activists said.

Moral Ground

In a report published on Tuesday, the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union grassroots activists’ group said Assad’s forces killed 551 people during Ramadan and that 130 others were killed on July 31, the eve of Ramadan, in a tank assault on the city of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military.

“The report does not include the number of martyrs who were not identified by name nor… bodies that were abducted (by security forces) and not returned to their families,” it said.

Amnesty International said that deaths in Syrian prisons and police detention had soared in recent months as Assad’s government tried to crush the protests.

The London-based human rights group said it had details of at least 88 people believed to have died in detention between April and mid-August. At least 52 of them had apparently suffered some form of torture that was likely to have contributed to their death.

Chibli Mallat, a professor of law at Harvard, and chairman of the Right to Nonviolence international group of public figures, said Syria’s death toll, although high, was still less than Libya, where the revolution turned into armed conflict and needed NATO’s help.

“It may be also the case in Syria today … But is it necessary to reach the point that arms are engaged?” Mallat said in an article published on Tuesday in Egypt’s al-Ahram online.

“Is it not wiser, albeit perhaps more frustrating, to keep the revolution pure in the tenacity of its nonviolence, rather than lose the absolute moral superiority against violent rulers?” said Mallat, who is Lebanese.

The official state news agency said state television had aired an audio recording of two “terrorists” who described themselves as activists.

It said the tape revealed “a full agenda of provocation and targeting police and army camps and terrorising peaceful citizens in the name of freedom and non-violence.”

The Syrian National Human Rights Organization, headed by exiled dissident Ammar al-Qurabi, said pro-Assad forces, including a loyalist militia known as shabbiha, had killed at least 3,100 civilians since the uprising erupted in March, including 18 people on Monday alone.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay said this month that 2,200 people have been killed, with Assad’s forces continuing “to employ excessive force, including heavy artillery, to quell peaceful demonstrations and regain control over the residents of various cities.”

Syrian authorities blame “armed terrorist groups” for the bloodshed and say they have killed 500 soldiers and police. They have also repeatedly denied that army defections have been taking place.

Foreign media were expelled after the uprising began in March, making verification of reports difficult.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman; al-Khalidi; Editing by Angus MacSwan and David Stamp)

After Libya, Eyes Turn to Syrian Revolt

August 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Mariam Karouny

2011-08-20T165637Z_01_BTRE77I169700_RTROPTP_3_INTERNATIONAL-US-SYRIA

A child holds a Syrian flag with Arabic words on it reading: “The people want the execution of killers, and freedom only” during a protest by Jordanians and Syrians against the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters, near the city of Mafraq at the Jordanian-Syrian border, northeast of Amman August 19, 2011.          

REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed 

BEIRUT (Reuters)” – The downfall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is likely to pave the way for increased Western attention to Syria and embolden protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

The implosion of Gaddafi’s rule after six months of civil war in which the rebels benefited from sanctions on Gaddafi, a no-fly zone and NATO air strikes may have implications for Syri’s six-month-old revolt and Assad’s efforts to crush it.

“The international community will now think that its strong intervention in the struggle (in Syria) will resolve the situation,” said opposition figure Louay Hussein.

“Libya has raised the morale of the West and it will have a bigger excuse to intervene. But we reject any military action in Syria.”

Hussein and other opposition activists said however the events in Tripoli would revive Syrian protesters’ hopes.

“What happened in Libya means a lot for us, it means that the Arab spring is coming without doubt … there is no solution to any problem without the will of the people,” said Michel Kilo, a prominent opposition figure.

No country has proposed the kind of action in Syria which NATO forces have carried out in Libya. But the West has called on Assad to step down and Washington has imposed new sanctions over his crackdown, in which the United Nations says 2,200 civilians have died.

Syria has an alliance with Iran and a key role in Lebanon, despite ending a 29-year military presence there in 2005. It also has influence in Iraq and supports militant groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

Assad on Sunday said Syria would not bow to external pressure, which he said could only affect “a president made in the United States and a subservient people who get their orders from outside.”

“As for the threat of a military action … any action against Syria will have greater consequences (on those who carry it out), greater than they can tolerate,” he said.

Assad has responded to the unrest with a mixture of reforms and force. He granted citizenship to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, ended a state of emergency and promised to let groups other than his Baath party run in elections.

Analysts and opposition figures said they expected the situation in Syria to deteriorate further, with authorities intensifying the crackdown and protesters not backing down.

“After what happened in Libya I think he (Assad) will be tougher with the security option he is taking,” Boumonsef said.

“He sees what (he calls) the international conspiracy on him will be stronger and now that Gaddafi is out of the way it will move toward him in full strength … This is imminent.”

Some opposition figures expressed fears that Libya’s endgame might encourage voices among the opposition calling for the arming of a hitherto largely peaceful movement in Syria.

“I fear that some in the opposition who are in a hurry to end the regime, who we have always warned against repeating the Libyan example, will say now it has been successful and resort to arms,” said Hussein, who was detained during the uprising.

“But we will resist such proposals, regardless of where they are coming from.”

The anti-Assad movement is fragmented. “Despite everything that is happening, the opposition remains stuck over little issues like personal issues between its leaders,” Kilo said.

Boumonsef said it would try harder, with international help, to unify.

“The opposition will be motivated more. There is no return and (Assad’s) reforms will not stop anything. It is too late.”

Encouraged after Western leaders called on Assad to step down, Syrian opposition figures are holding talks in Istanbul to nominate a broad-based council that could aid in a transition of power if Assad is toppled.

Unlike previous opposition conferences, which were marked by divisions between Islamists and liberals, participants said there was broad agreement on 120 nominees for the council from inside and outside Syria.

The council would speak for dissidents in exile and activists on the ground, opposition figures told Reuters.

But some poured cold water on the idea. “There is no interest inside Syria in a conference happening outside because the public opinion and those inside Syria believe that what is happening outside is marginal,” Kilo said.

“We do not need a transitional council … the real challenge is not what should be done after the regime collapses but for us it is what should be done every day so that we remain standing.”

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Syrian Oppression: Taxonomy of a Revolution

August 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Omar Dahi

2011-08-03T134144Z_1051720454_GM1E7831OEQ01_RTRMADP_3_TURKEY

Demonstrators shout slogans as they protest against the government of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad outside the Syrian consulate in Istanbul, August 3, 2011. 

REUTERS/Osman Orsal

The Syrian regime is in big trouble. Absent an economic collapse, its downfall may not be imminent, but Most indicators lead to the conclusion that the regime is effectively done, and the only remaining questions are how bloody the transition will be and what type of Syria will emerge. On the domestic front, the social base of the regime is stagnant or shrinking. The regime immediately mobilized its entire social support structure to ‘million-man’ marches. Though many attending are government workers made to go (pro-regime marches are always on workdays), many of those attending do so willingly. However that mobilization has reached its limit: the regime has no new social base to draw on and mobilize. Most of those who willingly attend the “mnhibak” (literally: we love you) pro-regime rallies know very well that there will not be any violence otherwise they would stay home. On the other hand, the anti-regime demonstrations are steadily increasing, both in numbers and in geographic size. Three weeks ago roughly 1.2 million or 5.5% of the population demonstrated all over the country.

Economically, the country is in dire straits. The tourist industry has been decimated. The increased deficit spending, from raised salaries, support for fuels, lower import tariffs are large enough, without taking into account the spending on Army mobilization, and military and security personnel. Externally, the regime is getting more, not less isolated. Just yesterday, the Russian President warned his Syrian counterpart of a ‘sad fate’, unless reforms are implemented. It was given a long leash by the West to deal with the protests, but its main asset as a guarantor of ‘stability’ is now turning into a liability.

I traveled to Syria in July to observe first-hand what is taking place inside the country. Most of my time was spent in Damascus and its suburbs, with brief trips elsewhere, in particular a two day stint in Hama just days before the government’s massacre. What follows is a series of vignettes, hastily put together, of life inside Syria this past month. These stories represent my own understanding and readers should take all stories emerging from the country as a partial truth, but will hopefully help give a clearer picture of Syria in the midst of the revolution. I have left out the names and identifying details of many wonderful people who have helped me shape my views for obvious reasons. I am solely responsible for this article’s content.

Everyday life in Damascus

The first thing that strikes a traveler when entering Syria straight into Damascus in the past month is that life appears to be normal. This false sense of normalcy has allowed certain sectors of Damascenes to live in a fairy tale of ‘everything’s fine, it’ll be over soon’, something I heard repeatedly during my stay. There are signs of course that things are not quiet as they seem: there is increased security presence everywhere, especially the now infamous security buses which are used to herd arrested protestors to unknown destinations. From time to time cars or trucks full of pro-regime supporters tour the city carrying flags and shouting pro-Bashar slogans. The tourist industry has declined as mentioned earlier which means that many hotels, restaurants, and cafes which had become an important source of income and employment are almost empty. If Damascus had been relatively subdued in terms of protests, politics is on everyone’s minds and all taboo subjects, including what five months ago seemed unspeakable topics such as the regime’s downfall and direct criticism of the President are now commonplace. When entering an ongoing conversation one is immediately asked if s/he is pro- (muwalat) or anti-regime (mu’arada) (or in the derogatory terms booq (trumpet) or mundass (infiltrator).

When discussing the ongoing events with someone against the demonstrations (incidentally, very few people I spoke with identified as ‘pro-regime’, they preferred to say they are ‘with reform’ I will identify them in this article as against the revolts, the most neutral term I could find to describe their position). Conversations with those against the revolts can quickly descend into farce. Many I spoke with maintained that everyone who supports the revolution from outside the country is either a coward, a traitor, or does not genuinely care about Syria’s fate (this third category is where some people placed me, thankfully). As for those opposing the regime on the inside: Dar’a are a bunch of no-good smugglers, Hama is vindictive and full of hate, Homs are all extremist Salafis, the Northwest are separatist Kurds, and the Northeast are drug dealers, etc. The discussion then turns into a description of the atrocities committed by the protestors.

One typical story: “a women went to her neighbor’s house and asked them to stop protesting. When she turned around to leave, they shot her in the back. Somehow she didn’t die and was taken to the hospital. The neighbors then followed her to the hospital, kidnapped her, and cut her to pieces.” Depending on the source this story took place in ‘Arbin, Qatana, Dar’a, or Hama. The punch line was “and this is her own neighbors who did this. You see, these people are monsters, they don’t know what freedom means.” Regime violence is either denied or taken as a given (‘what do you expect, to insult them and be rewarded with flowers?’ or ‘this regime hasn’t done anything yet, if they really wanted to kill, they can do a lot more’). One reason that’s given for not opposing the regime is that this regime is lunatic and capable of mass murder and therefore it should not be pressured.

The more I talked with people who hold these views the more I realized that they genuinely believe them, with one slight caveat: many of these did not decide on their stand against the revolt based on the stories of criminal gangs, and Muslim extremists, and so forth. Just the opposite: most of those I spoke with who held this view clearly had made up their minds from day one of the revolts and then decided to believe the government’s stories. On the other hand, there were many who changed their beliefs when they clearly saw the government had chosen the violent approach, and many who were literally traumatized by the President’s first speech.

Contrary to what many have claimed, demonstrations have been taking place well within the center of a month before Ramadan. Demonstrations have taken place in Qaboon, Rukn al-Deen, Barzeh, Duma, Harasta, Daraya, ‘Arbeen, Zamalka, Hajar al Aswad, (Zabadani), Qatana, Kiswe, , Qadam, Jdeida, as well as the Midan district: all well inside Damascus.

If these were lights on a map they would form a circle around the city.

Since the government’s main concern now is Damascus and Aleppo, it is concentrating a huge security presence in those two cities. Hot spots such as Rukn al-Din, al-Qaboon, Harasta, and Duma are cordoned off entirely starting Thursday night. I walked through those areas on several occasions on a Friday and traffic was completely blocked with checkpoints on each major street entrance.

In the last few days before Ramadan there was a particularly heavy security presence in Damascus. In Khalid bin Walid street two days before Ramadan three flatbed military vehicles passed by pedestrian traffic, each with about 30 soldiers carrying machine guns and chanting pro-Maher (President’s brother) slogans. This seemed to be a warning to Damascenes not to dare protest during Ramadan. Like most regime actions you could see in the faces of passers by that this only increased people’s hostility. As I left the scene an old lady whispered to me ‘dear, do you think they are going to the Golan?’. A few days later in the exact same spot, a silent funeral march for a protestor who had been shot the day before was attacked by police, only for the police themselves to be beaten up by the people in the neighborhood.

Who Are the Protestors? What are their tactics?

Syria’s internal opposition movement is not unified and one should not speak about it in the singular. One can identify five distinct opposition groups. Burhan Ghaliun has stated they are unified by the three “No’s”: no to violence, no to sectarianism, and no to outside intervention (although I would exclude from this what I identify as the fifth group).

The first group consists of traditional oppositional parties: the socialist, Nasserist, and communist parties.

Second are the dissident intellectuals (such as Michel Kilo, Tayeb Tizini, Fayez Sara, Aref Dalila, and Burhan Ghalioun (on the outside).

In my view the writings and words of these dissident intellectuals carry much greater weight among the revolutionary youth than the traditional oppositional parties, although, neither of the first two categories has a large ‘social base.

Third is the youth movement itself (youth here is used liberally, including teenagers to people in their 40s) which is the moving force of the revolution. The leaders of the Local Coordination Committees are in this group. While the uprising started off with demonstrations of marginalized and lower class youth, it has expanded to include youth from all sectors of society.

The fourth category is the social base of the youth movement that is an unorganized civil society composed of socially conservative Muslims but which is mistakenly referred to as Islamist. These are the people who bore the brunt of regime repression for decades. These are the primary carriers of the social revolt — that is the Syrian society itself and the reason in my view why the regime cannot survive.

The fifth category, which the regime claims is the main obstacle, but which is in fact a very small fraction, is the armed Salafi groups.

Some may have traveled to Iraq to fight the US invasion. (They do not fit into Ghalioun’s three “no’s”, because they espouse violent revolution, are overtly sectarian, and welcome intervention by fellow Salafists, whether Syrian or not.) These groups do not neatly fit into either class or regional categories. Most of those who have taken to the streets are from lower economic classes and rural or middle sized-cities. However, there is still a much larger group which has not taken to the streets and does not fall into the categories I have outlined above, but which is just as resentful of the regime: this is the upper-class and middle-class youth of Syria’s two major cities.

It has been conventional wisdom to assume that well-to-do Syrians are pro-regime. This is not accurate. Many who have brushed up against the regime and have experienced its humiliations and observed its brutality first hand. They may not take to the streets, but may contribute in other ways that are not obvious to the casual observer. Given the forbidding security environment, the protestors are organizing at the neighborhood level. Paranoia and fear of secret police make establishing ties between local organizations difficult, although organization is improving at all levels slowly but surely.

Since the start of the revolt, the government’s actions have been arbitrary and improvised. The government was caught flat footed by the protests and has had to change tactics over time. Its response has been to employ two main tracks: the first a campaign of psychological and physical terror against the demonstrators, the second, a series of political liberalization measures meant to both absorb or appease a section of the protestors as well as present to the outside world a semblance of change. Both of these tracks have one main common denominator: they are meant to preserve as much of the political status quo as possible. They are also designed to insist on complete governmental control over events and government reforms. Five months into the uprising, the government still acts as if it holds all the cards; all ‘reform’ measures are issued as decrees by the government.

In other words, it has recognized –in its own words- legitimate grievances, but has yet to recognize a legitimate opposition to be negotiated with.

Thus, the “democratic transition,” such as the crafting of new political reform legislation, such as new ‘parties’ and ‘media’ laws, has been handed down by government fiat. Even the call for ‘dialogue’ which manifested itself in a two day summit in early July ended with a pre-fabricated statement which ignored the discussion that had taken place. Since then, the government’s response to opposition demands has been largely one of violence.

The protests themselves have not been uniform. Given the terror and live ammunition used by the regime, the protest movement’s tactics have been varied and creative. Resistance by the opposition ranges from political satire, rumors and gossip, guerrilla demonstrations, mass demonstrations, in-house demonstrations later broadcast on the internet, sit-ins, as well as acts of sabotage and violence.      

Since some quarters of Damascus and other areas are under Army siege or lock-down, demonstrators come out in rapid demonstrations and withdraw before the security forces can gather. When I visited Hama, days before the massacre (more on this below) each day over 100,000 people gathered in the main square (Sahet al-‘Asi) to discuss the day’s events and exchange information about events taking place elsewhere in Syria. One of the more creative tactics has been the ‘white demonstrations’ on Hamra street. A group ranging from 500 to 2000 all wearing white shirts or hats in groups of no more than three, but usually one or two walk back and forth on Hamra street without saying a word or even acknowledging each other. The security forces see them and know something is up but simply don’t know on what pretext to arrest them.

As to the question of violence, it undoubtedly exists among the protest movement, though to a very small degree, as opposed to the regime’s actions which have been overwhelmingly violent, and increasingly so. It is quite amazing that the protest movement has not been as violent as one would expect given the brutality and sectarianism of the regime.

I attended several pro-regime rallies (masira) because I was curious to see who attends and what exactly takes place there. During my stay there were two large demonstrations, one in Omayyad (capped by the wildly popular singer George Wassouf) and the other in Hijaz Square. I attended the latter, but went twice to a rally in Bab Touma, the traditionally Christian part of town. As I approached the main square, which had several hundred people in white shirts all carrying or wearing Syrian flags, with loud pro-Bashar music blaring from loudspeakers, I finally realized what fascism really looks like.

The belief or claim by some opposition members outside the country that pro-regime demonstrations are entirely forced is not accurate. Many state (and private sector) employees are made to go, but many show up on their own and do not fit neatly into categories such as ‘regime beneficiary’ which some members of the opposition like to throw around.

These were people, on their own will, coming to support a regime’s brutal crackdown by security forces that they themselves have long dreaded and despised. I saw and spoke with several people in attendance, all of whom insisted the events were necessary to ‘confront the conspiracy,’ to ‘preserve national unity’, and to ‘oppose extremists.’ The event was emceed skillfully by a man who alternated between leading chants and reading gut-wrenching accounts of the last moments and words of brave soldiers and military officers. In one such case, the commanding officer of a security post that had been ambushed called his superior and said: “the ammunition is done, I ask you to continue the fight. The homeland is a trust under your hands. Defend it and defend the leader.” The last words of all dying soldiers always involved: a) happiness in their sacrifice, b) devotion to the homeland and the president, c) request that those left behind take up the cause/fight.

Of course, no one has been hurt in a pro-regime rally and the ‘roving criminal gangs’ and ‘terrorist groups’ are absent. The rallies are guarded and streets are blocked. My own impression is that a large number of those attending would not take to the streets if there were any chance of violence.

Homage to Hama

I will describe my trip to Hama in a bit more detail because what I experienced there and what took place in the days after I left sums up what is beautiful about the revolution, just as it underscores the dark side of the regime. We left Damascus around 7.30am heading on a Pullman towards Hama. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get into the city. I had heard horrendous stories about violence in and around the city. There were only 12 passengers on the bus and some were to continue to Aleppo. From the capital until Homs there were very few signs of any disturbances or security presence, however after passing Homs in the environs of Talbeesa and Rastan there were about 20 tanks or so. Upon reaching Hama we were stopped by a new security unit I had not seen or heard of before. They wore black and dark green uniforms and had “counter terrorism unit” (C.T.U.) written on their back. They boarded the bus and to my surprise asked if there were any soldiers on board. They did not ask for our IDs. We had heard of soldier defections taking place and I can only speculate that they were looking for them.

I should note that there have not been any high ranking defections in the Syrian Army that I know of, though there are numerous conscripts that have been fleeing military service. (The Army has not released any soldier from service, including those whose normal service term has expired). That checkpoint was the last symbol of government control and  from then on we were in a liberated city, with no army or security presence whatsoever and no traffic police either.

After the mass demonstrations the security had withdrawn and left the town to its own affairs although everyone was anticipating an attack at any moment (which would later come the day before Ramadan). To try and slow down an attack the Hamwis had set up makeshift barriers throughout the city made of trash cans, cinder blocks, metal bars, even overturned buses and a huge caterpillar truck meant to deter or slow down an attack by security services. These were manned by boys and men ranging  from teenagers to men in their forties, two or three at a time directing traffic. They were not armed, very friendly and allowed me to freely take pictures (on a slightly depressing note, some thought I was a foreigner and greeted me with “hello mr. welcome to hama.”). The teenagers and young men in particular were taking their traffic policing job quite seriously (‘better than the actual traffic cops’ I heard time and again), despite spending the day under a blistering sun.

At night during the daily demonstrations, and when there was a strike, all the checkpoints would be closed. The barriers could not really deter any attack, and the Hamwis knew this of course. At best they were hoping to slow it down so that the city would not be caught unprepared.

I was told that some villagers bringing down milk and yogurt were turned back due to the strike and did not return since their products had spoiled and were afraid this would occur again.

I was also informed that some Alawi civil servants and employees had not come to work from the villages out of fear, although I was assured their fear was unfounded and that no sectarian attack had taken place (Incidentally, I did not hear any sectarian chants during my stay and there was only one anti-Shiite sectarian slogan painted way outside on the periphery of the city. All other slogans around it had been painted over except this one perhaps left to show evidence of sectarianism).

The city itself was full of life and the markets were busy, after several days of a general strike; the markets and shops stayed open until well past 1am. We walked through the city passing by the world famous Norias, the Old souq and the many markets. Life did not stop in Hama, there were no armed gangs or armed presence within the city. We passed by several liquor stores that were open for business. I made sure to take a picture and show my Christian friends back in Damascus who thought that Hama was under some sort of Salafi rule.! Passing through a park near the center of the city, we heard a few men murmur ‘the people want to topple the regime’ as we passed people in a park.

Anti-regime graffiti could be seen on some walls, although some of it was painted over. There was no sign of vandalism and damage of public property, and many pro-regime banners set up at the start of the uprisings in Syria had been left intact. I heard many stories throughout the day of the corruption and theft of the regime, particularly illegal land acquisition by people in the upper circles of power, including partners of the presidents infamous cousin. There is a ‘takbeer’ (chant of God is Great) when a checkpoint is attacked or neighborhood is attacked and the entire block or passersby rush to help. Things of course were a bit more complex than they appeared on the surface.

A source told us of an ambush of demonstrators which took place in front of his house. A masked informant led the demonstrators into the security officers waiting around a street corner who opened fire and immediately killed at least 10 people. Our host told us that the informant was later killed and his body dumped into the Orontes. This has been done a few times with people identified as informants, their names have been posted on the Mosque’s door, although inevitably were some mistakes and one person had to plead with his friends to come out in his defense and clear his name.
The nightly demonstrations were the fullest expression of the city’s freedom. They also acted as a social space for different sectors of Hamwis to gather. It became the location in which the day’s events were planned, grievances are aired, and news of events taking place in Syria discussed. I headed to the demonstration from the neighborhood of the Hama Castle, passing by the café of Apamea hotel. The café is located on a beautiful view, right on the Orontes river overlooking the Sohoniya, Qadriyya, and Sultaniyya Norias (water-wheels). However it has a tragic history. It was built on the ruins of the former Kaylaniyya district, which was beautiful. This entire historic district was razed to the ground during the 1982 massacres after being one of the most architecturally beautiful sites in Syria. The insurgents had taken refuge there believing — mistakenly as it turned out — that the government would not shell the district because of its historic value.

I approached the main square right around the end of the evening prayers. Along the way I passed on the left the only two buildings left in town which prominently displayed the pictures of the President, the first was the police HQ and the second was the Ba’ath party HQ. The Ba’ath Party HQ had been burned down after the massacre which took place on 6/6. A group of people took flowers and headed in that direction. When they approached, gunmen on top of the building had opened fire. The protestors tried to escape through another street only to find that it had been blocked the night before by the security. My informant said that several dozen people were killed that day. The next day Hama started demonstrating en masse and had not stopped since.

As we approached Sahet al-‘Asi (Orontes square) we saw several dozen people finishing the evening prayers in the square itself. The young men at the checkpoints had increased and were rerouting traffic. I first decided to hang out at the edge of the square, in front of the park through which Orontes river ran. The number of people arriving began to pick up. Whether by foot, taxi, or micro-bus, loads of men and women, young and old started arriving. It seemed like the whole town was arriving to take part. Even as the square was getting full I saw a huge crowd marching down from the South of the city. Groups of kids were clapping and chanting anti-regime slogans. Cafes and markets which opened the day before were still open and there was a hustle and bustle in the streets all night long. By the time about 100,000 gathered in the square all checkpoints leading to the square were closed to all but pedestrians, and the demonstration started in full force.

With chants blaring from loudspeakers, the event was more than just an anti-regime demonstration, it was an event were people gathered to talk about the day’s news, exchange information and make requests. One such request was that the checkpoints were becoming a burden on the population, especially the kids wanting to take the dreaded baccalaureate exam. Others asked that the villagers be allowed to bring down their food. A lawyer was recently released from custody and said he was one of the last remaining detainees. Solidarity with other cities as well as individuals who had spoken out against the regime’s violence (such as actress May Skaff) was a particular theme that night.

Most chants mentioned unity among Christians, Alawis, Sunnis, Kurds, (more on the tricky sectarian issue below)and many Christians were in attendance and were saluted by the crowd. Outside the square, markets were still open and people were going about their business as if this was the most normal thing in the world.

Hama has always been a conservative city. All but a few women on the streets were wearing headscarves (there were almost no niqabs -which is mostly a phenomenon in other cities such as Damascus). But I saw absolutely no signs of fundamentalism inside the city. It is a mistake to think Hama’s intifada can simply be reduced to the 1982 massacre.

They have shared grievances with every other city in Syria. In my opinion it’s more accurate to say that this is a city with a history of collective mobilization against injustice and defiance since before the Ba’ath regime came to power, and because of their defiance they have repeatedly paid a heavy price. And they were willing to do so again.

This was not a vindictive or hateful city as I kept hearing from people in Damascus. The genuine happiness of achieving freedom far outweighed the supposed desire for revenge against the regime. The chant I heard most frequently throughout the day and night was ya mahlaha al hurriya (freedom is beautiful).

A few days after I left, the government attacked the city. It killed over 100 people in the first two days of its assault. Syrian television reports on the days of the attack repeated stories of armed criminals terrorizing the population and destroying daily life in the city. They claimed that the Hamwis had called for government intervention. I saw first-hand that all those stories were a blatant lie. Hamwis knew what the regime was capable of and what it was planning. They nevertheless showed unbending courage and defiance in the face of terrible odds. The regime will not emerge triumphant from this bloodbath as it did in the past. Rather than turning their backs on Hama, as they did in the past, Syria’s other cities are championing it. Hama’s cause with neither sectarian nor violent. This time around, Hama expressed the sentiments of the Syrian people in a peaceful way.

The Issue of Minorities

Most of my time in Syria was spent in the Christian quarters of Damascus. Despite personal familiarity with the inhabitants of these quarters, nothing in my upbringing prepared me for the level of vitriol and hatred I heard there toward the protestors. The most depressing aspect of my trip to Syria was to see many (and I fear most) of its Christians rallying in support of the regime.

I heard the same language used to describe my fellow Syrians and the brave protestors as I have so often heard used by Israelis to describe the struggles of Palestinian people:  They are monsters, if they get their rights they will kill us’, ‘why are they sending their children to die?’, ‘they don’t want democracy, they are Islamic extremists who will kill us or oppress all us’, ‘no country can tolerate armed groups seeking to overthrow it’ etc. I was infuriated to consistently hear my heroes slandered and despised in their own country. And this by people who know only too well how brutal the regime is.

However if one is patient and overlooks the provocative slurs, one can detect a common theme among those who criticize the uprising: a genuine fear of the unknown. I believe that many who claim that the regime ‘protects minorities’ in fact fear retribution. Minorities which believe that they have benefited from the regime’s brutality and corruption over the past forty years believe that they are implicated in the eyes of the Sunni majority in its crimes. This is true not only of the Christians but even more so of the Isma’ilis and Alawis. I fear that the longer the regime clings to power and the more brutal it gets, the more sectarian feelings will intensify. Many feel the cross-sectarian chants (such as “Christians and Muslims are brothers” etc.) are disingenuous. This may be true, but I believe the criticism is a too harsh. At the start of the protests the demonstrators were viciously attacked by some as hiding a radical Islamist agenda. they responded in the best way they could: we have no such intentions, in fact we are all one, we love our Christian, Kurdish, and Alawi brothers etc. They were then attacked for saying this as well. In other words, it’s a no-win situation for these demonstrators who, apparently, like their Palestinian brethren, must prove the purity of their intentions. 

All they are doing, after all, is insist that they they be granted their elemental civil rights.

The regime has in fact been the biggest enemy of minorities, including most Alawis. Alawis must navigate a treacherous and difficult political path. The opposition needs to pay special attention to the sectarian issue and the social wounds after the fall of the regime. National reconciliation will be so important if Syria is to find unity and social peace. It is not enough to make the claim that most Alawis (or other minorities) are not with the regime, and that being a Alawi or Christian or Isma’ili has nothing to do with this regime. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, what seems to be on the table in Syria is a genuine revolutionary change and radical societal transformation that inevitably leaves many people fearful of the unknown. The gradualism, peacefulness, and decentralization of the Syrian revolution have been a major asset, although many I spoke with see the lack of an organized opposition they trust (and the Muslim Brotherhood definitely does not fall into this category for the people I am referring to) as potentially disastrous for the country.

Leaving Damascus

I left Damascus three days into Ramadan with the general feeling that it was on the verge of a major escalation. The pro- and anti- regime demonstrations are headed in opposite directions numbers wise. After starting off as a militant movement to demand basic civil rights, the protests seem to have reached a zero-sum game, but this has still emboldened even more people to take to the streets.
The high death toll of the attack on Hama carried out on the day before Ramadan demonstrates that the regime has more or less given up the call for dialogue. Syria’s rulers believe that they can still crush the protest movement. At the same time, they have issued several political reform measures meant to placate foreign countries, who hope that Syria might emerge as a ‘liberal autocracy’ on the model of Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s. The opposition will not accept such thin gruel now that it has sacrificed so much and mobilized so many. Neither side is likely to back down.

Syria might very well descend into fighting and repression that becomes quite bloody. But even if it does, the revolution must be driven completely from the inside for moral as well as practical reasons. So far, despite government claims, it has been overwhelmingly non-violent, internally driven, and de-centralized, which explains its success.

However this can only continue for so long. I fear that increased regime terror will lead to an increasingly armed response. After priding itself on maintaining stability, the regime will have to accept the responsibility for the destruction of Syria for the sake of maintaining power.

* Omar S. Dahi is Assistant Professor of Economics at Hampshire College. His email address is odahi at hampshire dot edu. His cell phone number is 413-313-2492.

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Assad: Syria Won’t Stop Fight

August 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Tuesday his forces would continue to pursue “terrorist groups” after Turkey pressed him to end a military assault aimed at crushing protests against his rule.

Syria “will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and the security of the citizens,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

“But (Syria) is also determined to continue reforms … and is open to any help offered by friendly and brotherly states.”

While the two men held talks in Damascus, Syrian forces killed at least 30 people and moved into a town near the Turkish border, an activist group said.

The National Organization for Human Rights said most of the fatalities occurred when troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles overran villages north of Hama, while four were killed in Binnish, 30 km (20 miles) from the border with Turkey.

Washington expressed disappointment at Assad’s latest comments and said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expected to talk to Davutoglu after his meetings in Syria.

“It is deeply regrettable that President Assad does not seem to be hearing the increasingly loud voice of the international community,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters when asked about the comment.

She refused to comment directly on a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable quoted by McClatchy newspapers last week describing Assad in unflattering terms, calling him “neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father” (former president Hafez al-Assad).

Despite the growing international condemnation, including a sudden wave of Arab criticism, Assad’s forces pursued an offensive in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, residents said.

Activists say at least 1,600 civilians have died since the uprising against Assad erupted in March, making it one of the bloodiest of the upheavals sweeping the Arab world.

Davutoglu held six hours of meetings with Syrian officials, including a two-hour session alone with Assad.

He told reporters on his return to Ankara that Turkey had demanded Damascus stop killing civilians and said his government would maintain contacts with all parts of Syrian society.

Davutoglu said Turkey hoped for a peaceful transition in Syria resulting in the Syrian people deciding their own future.

Neighboring Turkey has grown increasingly critical of the violence but earned a sharp rebuke on Sunday when an Assad adviser said Syria would not accept interference in its affairs.

Syria has faced nearly five months of protests against Assad’s 11-year rule, inspired by Arab revolts which overthrew leaders in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.

Last week Assad sent troops and tanks to quell the mostly Sunni Muslim city of Hama in central Syria and the army launched a similar assault on Sunday against Deir al-Zor.

An armored column also pushed toward the center of the city on Tuesday, with troops storming houses and making arrests in the provincial capital of an oil region bordering Iraq’s Sunni heartland, a resident said.

“They are now about one kilometer from downtown. When they finish with one district, they move to another,” said the resident, who gave his name as Iyad.

Increasing the pressure on Assad, Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia issued a blunt warning that he risked turmoil unless he stopped the bloodshed and adopted reforms.

Kuwait and Bahrain followed the kingdom in recalling their ambassadors.

The withdrawal of envoys left Assad with few diplomatic friends bar Iran. Western states have imposed sanctions on his top officials, while states with close ties to Damascus such as Russia and Turkey have warned Assad he is running out of time.

Nevertheless, no country has proposed military action such as that launched against Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi.

ASSAULT

In Deir al-Zor, a resident said on Monday 65 people had been killed since tanks and armored vehicles barreled into the city, 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Damascus on Sunday.

The British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said among the dead were a mother and her two children, an elderly woman and a girl. Syria has expelled most independent media since the revolt began, making it hard to confirm accounts.

Syrian authorities have denied that any Deir al-Zor assault took place. They say they have faced attacks since the protests erupted in March, blaming armed saboteurs for civilian deaths and accusing them of killing 500 security personnel.

State television broadcast footage on Sunday of mutilated bodies floating in the Orontes river in Hama, saying 17 police had been ambushed and killed in the central Syrian city.

The official SANA news agency said on Monday the military was starting to pull out of Hama after it said they had helped restore order. Residents said there were still tanks in parts of the city and security forces were making arrests.

About 1,500 people were detained in Hama’s Jarajima district and troops killed three civilians, the Observatory said.

Activists say at least 130 people were killed in Hama, where Assad’s father crushed an armed Islamist uprising in 1982, and one group has put the death toll at over 300.

Like most of Syria, ruled by Assad’s minority Alawite family, Hama and Deir al-Zor are mainly Sunni cities, and the crackdowns there resonate with Sunnis, who form the majority in the region and govern most Arab countries.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Ankara bureau; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Syrian Forces Round Up Dozens in Hama

July 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian forces rounded up dozens of people around Hama on Wednesday, a day after shooting dead 22 people, activists said, and Amnesty International said Syria may have committed crimes against humanity in an earlier crackdown.

Tanks were still stationed outside Hama, which has seen some of the biggest protests against President Bashar al-Assad and was the site of a bloody crackdown against Islamist insurgents nearly 30 years ago.

But some of the tanks were redeployed away from the city and a resident said security forces were concentrated around the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party, the police headquarters and a state security compound. Most arrests took place in the outskirts of the city.

Ammar Qurabi, Cairo-based head of the Syrian National Human Rights Organization, said the death toll from Tuesday, when gunmen loyal to Assad swept through the city, had risen to 22.
He said hundreds of people had been arrested.

Rami Adbelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 23 people had died in Hama in the last 24 hours, and that an opposition figure in the city had reported water and electricity supplies were cut to the city on Wednesday morning.

State news agency SANA said one policeman had been killed in a clash with armed groups who opened fire on security forces and threw petrol and nail bombs at them. It made no mention of civilian deaths but said some “armed men” were injured.

Syria has prevented most independent media from operating inside the country, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and authorities.

Hama was emptied of security forces for nearly a month after at least 60 protesters were shot dead on June 3, but the security vacuum emboldened demonstrators and on Friday activists said at least 150,000 people rallied to demand Assad’s downfall.

The next day Assad sacked the provincial governor and sent tanks and troops to surround the city, signaling a military assault similar to those carried out in other protest centers.
In a report released on Wednesday, Amnesty International said the crackdown two months ago against one of those protest centers — the town of Tel Kelakh near the border with Lebanon — may have constituted a crime against humanity.

Urging the United Nations to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, it said nine people died in custody after being captured during the operation in the town, close to the Lebanese border.

“Crimes Against Humanity”

Describing a “devastating security operation”, it said scores of men were rounded up, and most of them were tortured.

Some detainees told Amnesty they were beaten and tied by the wrists to a bar high enough off the ground to force them to stand on the tip of their toes for long periods — known as the shabah, meaning ghost, position.

A 22-year-old man told Amnesty he was tied up in the shabah position had electric shocks applied to his body and testicles during five days of detention in the provincial capital Homs.

“Amnesty International considers that crimes committed in Tel Kelakh amount to crimes against humanity as they appear to be part of a widespread, as well as systematic, attack against the civilian population,” it said.

Syrian activists say security forces have killed more than 1,300 civilians since the unrest erupted 14 weeks ago. Authorities say 500 soldiers and police have been killed by armed gangs who they also blame for most of the civilian deaths.

Assad has responded to the protests with a mixture of repression and concessions, promising a political dialogue with the opposition. Preliminary talks on the dialogue are due to be held on Sunday.

But opposition figures refuse to sit down and talk while the killings and arrests continue, and diplomats say events in Hama will be a litmus test for whether Assad chooses to focus on a political or a military solution to the unrest.

Some residents sought to halt any military advance earlier this week by blocking roads between neighborhoods with rubbish containers, burning tyres, wood and metal.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it had been told by an official at Hama’s Hourani hospital that security forces surrounded the hospital on Tuesday, although they did not enter it, as it received the bodies of four people and treated 60 others with gunshot wounds.

“Security forces have responded to protest with the brutality that’s become familiar over the past several months.” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.

Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000, sent troops into Hama in 1982 to crush an Islamist-led uprising in the city where the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood made its last stand.

That attack killed many thousands, possibly up to 30,000, and one slogan shouted by Hama protesters in recent weeks was “Damn your soul, Hafez”.

13-28

Syria Tank Assault Kills 11 Near Turkey

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian troops shot dead 11 villagers on Wednesday, residents said, as authorities pressed on with a tank-led assault that has driven thousands of refugees across the northwest border with Turkey.

The assault on Jabal al-Zawya, a region 35 km (22 miles) south of Turkey that has seen spreading protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, was launched overnight, a day after authorities said they would invite opponents to talks on July 10 to set up a dialogue offered by Assad.

Opposition leaders have dismissed the offer, saying it is not credible while mass killings and arrests continue. The Local Coordination Committees, a main activists’ group, said in a statement on Wednesday that 1,000 people have been arrested arbitrarily across Syria over the last week alone.

A resident of Jabal al-Zawya, a teacher who gave his name as Ziad, told Reuters by phone that among the dead were two youths in the village of Sarja.

“An eleven-year-old child is also badly wounded by random gunfire. We cannot get him out of the village for treatment because the tanks blocked all roads and troops are firing non-stop,” he said.

Ammar Qarabi, president of the Syrian National Human Rights Organisation, told Reuters from exile in Cairo that at least four villagers died in the village of Rama when tanks fired machineguns on surrounding woods then on the village. Residents reported killings in other parts of the region, which is home to more than 30 villages.

“Jabal al-Zawya, was one of the first regions in Syria where people took to the street demanding the downfall of the regime. The military attacks have now reached them and they will likely result in more killings and in more refugees to Turkey,” said Qarabi, who is from the northwestern province of Idlib.

He said he based his information on several witnesses’ testimony. Syria has banned most international media, making it difficult to independently verify accounts of violence.

A resident of Jabal al-Zawya said he heard large explosions overnight around the villages of Rama and Orum al-Joz, west of the highway linking the cities of Hama and Aleppo.

“My relatives there say the shelling is random and that tens of people have been arrested,” he said.

Another resident said 30 tanks rolled into Jabal al-Zawya on Monday from the village of Bdama on the Turkish border, where troops broke into houses and burned crops.

Rights campaigners say Assad’s troops, security forces and gunmen have killed over 1,300 civilians since the uprising for political freedom erupted in the southern Hauran Plain in March, including over 150 people killed in a scorched earth campaign against towns and villages in Idlib.

They say scores of troops and police were also killed for refusing to fire on civilians. Syrian authorities say more than 500 soldiers and police died in clashes with “armed terrorist groups,” whom they also blame for most civilian deaths.

Protests against Assad have been spreading despite military assaults and a fierce security crackdown, with activists expecting more students to join street demonstrations after exams end on Thursday.
Night-time demonstrations have intensified to circumvent heavy security in the day. The Local Coordination Committees said security forces shot dead one protester at a large rally on Wednesday night in Homs, 165 km north of Damascus.

Residents in Deraa, the cradle of the uprising, said tens of people were arrested in old quarter of the southern city on Wednesday, following demonstrations that reignited following a military assault two months ago led by Assad’s brother Maher.

Assad said in a speech last week that he had met delegations representing most Syrians to discuss the crisis and “felt love… I have never felt at any stage of my life.”

One of his advisers, Bouthaina Shaaban, told Sky News on Tuesday: “We hope that by conducting and hastening the national dialogue, we will be able to isolate any militant or violent group and work together with the international community to overcome that big problem.”

Assad has faced criticism from Western governments over the military campaign to crush the three-month uprising. France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe will meet his Russian counterpart later this week and will discuss the Syrian impasse in the hope of convincing Moscow to change its stance on a resolution condemning Syria at the United Nations.

French foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Paris was extremely concerned with the ongoing violence in Syria saying that “reforms and repression were not compatible.”

Valero, however, said that Syrian authorities took a positive step by allowing a meeting in Damascus on Monday of intellectuals that included several opposition figures.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague echoed France’s guarded welcome of Monday’s talks, but called for an end to violence, the release of political prisoners and a right to peaceful protest.

“Protests across the country are still being met by unacceptable violence from the regime, and the reports of Syrian troop movements near the Turkish border are of serious concern,” he said.

In Washington, the U.S. Treasury Department said it was imposing sanctions against Syria’s security forces for human rights abuses and against Iran for supporting them.

The Treasury named the four major branches of Syria’s security forces and said any assets they may have subject to U.S. jurisdiction will be frozen and that Americans are barred from any dealings with them.

Ankara has also become increasingly critical of Assad after backing him in his moves to improve ties with the West and seek a peace deal with Israel.

Turkey shares an 840 km border with Syria, a mostly Sunni country ruled by a tight-knit hierarchy belonging the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam.

Assad had opened the Syrian market to Turkish goods, but Turkish container traffic to Syria has fallen sharply over the last month, businesses say.

Sawasiah, another Syrian rights organization headed by lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani, said a security campaign that has resulted in the arrest of more than 12,000 people across Syria since March, has intensified in the last few days.

Security forces arrested Farhad Khader Ayou, an official in the Kurdish Mustaqbal party, on Tuesday in the eastern province of Hasaka, Sawasiah said.

13-27

Syrians Flee Town as Troops Approach

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

 
 

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrians fled a restive town toward the Turkish border, fearing bloodshed as troops with tanks approached, under orders to hit back after the government accused armed bands there of killing scores of its security men.

Though accounts of days of killing in Jisr al-Shughour ranged from an official version of gunmen ambushing troops to residents’ reports of an army mutiny, it triggered international alarm that violence may enter a new and bloodier phase after three months of popular unrest that has left over 1,000 dead.

France and Britain, allies in the war against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, took a lead in pushing U.N. moves against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Russia, citing NATO’s inconclusive bombing of Tripoli, said it would veto intervention against Syria in the United Nations Security Council.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, at U.N. headquarters in New York, said it was “a question of days, maybe hours” before the Council voted on a resolution condemning Syria. A draft circulated last month does not propose military intervention.

At Jisr al-Shughour, home to tens of thousands of people, residents said they were taking cover and bracing for attacks.

“The army is taking up position around Jisr al-Shughour,” one anti-government activist told Reuters by telephone, saying residents have seen troops approaching the northeastern town from Aleppo, Syria’s second city, and from Latakia on the coast.

“Most people have left the town because they are scared,” he said, asking not to be named for his own safety. “They know the deaths will be high. People have gone to nearby villages close to the Turkish border. The doctors and nurses have also left.”

On Monday, Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said army units would carry out their “national duty to restore security.”

The government has expelled independent journalists, making it hard to determine clearly what is happening in the country.

Despite enthusiasm for pro-democracy movements that have unseated dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, few Western leaders — let alone their autocratic Arab partners — have shown a will to intervene in Syria, an Iranian ally whose volatile mix of ethnic and religious groups sits astride a web of regional conflicts.

Foreign Pressure

Assad’s family and supporters from the minority Alawite sect have dominated Syria since his late father seized power 41 years ago. He has responded with promises of reform, and a crackdown on protesters in towns across the country. His officials accuse radical Islamists of fomenting a violent, armed revolt.

Neighboring countries, including Israel and Turkey, worry that a collapse into chaos could set off sectarian conflict and the emergence of violent, radical Islamists, as happened in Neighboring Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003.

But Western powers kept up pressure. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in some of London’s strongest language yet against the 45-year-old leader, told parliament: “President Assad is losing legitimacy and should reform or step aside.” He said European governments were looking at further sanctions.

“We are working to persuade other countries that the Security Council has a responsibility to speak out,” Hague added. Russia appears opposed to a general condemnation of Assad, let alone authorising military action against him.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who last month urged Assad to lead a transition to democracy or “get out of the way,” did not mention Syria in remarks at a news briefing on Tuesday.

But in Brussels, Russia’s envoy to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, said: “The prospect of a U.N. Security Council resolution that’s along the same lines as Resolution 1973 on Libya will not be supported by my country … The use of force, as Libya shows, does not provide answers.”

Veto-holding Russia abstained on the Libya vote, allowing NATO to begin a bombing campaign that Western powers say saved civilians in rebel-held Benghazi from an onslaught by Gaddafi’s forces, but which has failed to dislodge the Libyan leader.

Syria’s ambassador to France strongly denied a report on Tuesday that she had resigned in protest at the government’s repression of protests, saying it was part of a campaign of disinformation against Damascus.

Lamia Chakkour, shown standing in front of a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Paris embassy, told France’s BFM television that a report by news channel France 24, featuring a telephone interview with a woman claiming to be her, was false.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Michael Roddy)

13-25

Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Consensus After Big Win

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Pinar Aydinli and Ibon Villelabeitia

2011-06-12T211440Z_1243616371_GM1E76D0ER301_RTRMADP_3_TURKEY-ELECTION

Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, with a slogan reads that “We are Turkey together” in the background, greets his supporters at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara June 12, 2011. Erdogan’s ruling AK Party was set to win Sunday’s parliamentary election with 50.2 percent of the vote, but looked unlikely to get enough seats to call a referendum on a planned new constitution.

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will start a third term of one-party rule strengthened by Sunday’s decisive election victory but also burdened by the need for consensus to push ahead with plans for a new constitution.

Erdogan will have to focus first on a pressing foreign policy issue right on his borders: unrest in neighboring Syria has led to nearly 7,000 Syrian fleeing to Turkey to escape a brutal crackdown by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, with more coming every day.

But analysts said Erdogan also must find ways to revive a stalled bid for membership of the European Union and break down French and German reluctance to let Turkey in.

Erdogan, whose AK Party has transformed Muslim Turkey into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and ended a cycle of military coups, won 49.9 percent of the vote, or 326 seats, in Sunday’s parliamentary election.

The vote was AK’s biggest electoral tally since it first came to power in 2002 but the party failed to win the 330 seats it needed to call a referendum to recast the constitution, written almost 30 years ago during a period of military rule.

Financial markets were cheered on Monday as investors saw the mixed result forcing the AK Party to compromise with others to make the constitutional change. The Turkish lira strengthened against the dollar and bonds also gained.

“The new constitution requires consensus and dialogue with other parties and the society at large,” Cengiz Aktar, a professor at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, told Reuters.

“We will see if Erdogan is ready for these with his majority or will he go his own way and impose his own views on Turkey — in which case we will have difficult times.”

Turkish newspapers lauded his success.

“Turkey loves him,” “The master of the ballot box,” said front page headlines next to pictures of a smiling Erdogan waving to cheering supporters outside party headquarters.

Critics fear Erdogan, who has a reputation for being intolerant of criticism, might use the victory to cement power, limit freedoms and persecute opponents.

In a victory speech before thousands of flag-waving supporters in the capital Ankara on Sunday night, he pledged “humility” and said he would work with rivals.

“People gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation. We will discuss the new constitution with opposition parties. This new constitution will meet peace and justice demands.”

The new leader of the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which garnered its best result in more than 30 years with 25.9 percent of the vote, warned Erdogan that he would be watching his movements closely.

“We wish all success to AKP, but they must remember there’s a stronger main opposition party now,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu said.

Analysts saw scope for political turbulence in Turkey.

“The anticipated preparation of a new constitution has the potential to create significant political uncertainty, as it may well raise profound and controversial issues related to the division of power, secularism, religion, nationalism and ethnic minority rights,” Ed Parker, Fitch’s Head of EMEA Sovereign Ratings, said in a statement issued on Monday.

MODEL FOR ARAB SPRING

Turkey and Erdogan’s party are often are cited as models for supporters of democracy living through the “Arab Spring” series of anti-authoritarian protests in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
But opponents say Erdogan, whose party evolved from banned Islamist movements, is imposing a conservative social agenda.

Since crushing old establishment parties on a wave of support from a rising middle class of religious Turks, Erdogan has challenged the secularist military and judiciary with reforms meant to help Turkey meet EU standards of democracy.

He also has set the long-time NATO member and U.S. ally on a more assertive foreign policy course, building closer relations with Middle East countries, including Iran.

Some financial analysts had warned that too large an AK majority could polarize a country that is deeply divided over the role of religion and ethnic minorities.

A limited majority is seen making the government focus on macroeconomic imbalances, including an overheating economy.

There has been speculation that Erdogan would seek to move Turkey toward a more presidential system of government, with the ultimate aim of becoming president himself.

Besides the economy, Erdogan’s government also will need to tackle a separatist conflict in the mainly Kurdish southeast. A strong showing by the pro-Kurdish BDP in the Kurdish region played a role in denying the AK a bigger vote haul.

On Sunday night, a percussion bomb exploded in southeast Turkey, injuring 11 people celebrating election victories of Kurdish candidates, security and hospital officials said.

The explosion occurred around 11 p.m. (4 p.m. ET) in the province of Sirnak, near the Iraqi border. Casualties were being treated at a nearby hospital.

(Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore, Ece Toksabay, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

13-25

Dissent and Defiance in Damascus

April 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Ali Khan

13 April 2011–Young people in Syria are talking about their future. While Bashar al-Assad makes concessions that fail to convince, what is clear is the growing divide between government and people – however anxiously the world looks on.

JORDAN/

A Syrian girl in Jordan in a protest in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman 4/24/11.

REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Dictatorships are built on myths. When people begin to see the lies for what they are, the psychosis of fear melts away. Living in Damascus, one could not help but notice the intricate tapestries of illusions that the government had so carefully woven. The ever-present posters of various potentates across the Arab world are not just the machinations of arrogant and egotistical men but rather serve as daily reminders of the fact that everyone is under constant surveillance. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in Damascus with some friends when the owner came and sat with us because we had begun to discuss Arab politics. The café was empty and we were sitting at the back. The owner asked us if we had switched off our mobiles and taken the battery out. I, being the only foreigner, asked why, to which he replied that the Syrian government could listen into the conversation even if the phone is not making a call.

Obviously not all Syrians believe in these kind of stories but it is helpful in illustrating how the ostensibly mysterious and the brutal nature of regimes compels people to take part in creating these myths, thereby strengthening the hold of the regime over people. Another more popular ‘fact,’ which many foreign visitors write about, is how a large percentage of taxi drivers work for the mukhabarat or the intelligence service. Of course, there will always be people who are willing to provide information to the government that they deem to be important. Much of it in reality is inconsequential, but again it helps perpetuate the mystery of tyranny. Although the Syrian intelligence services have a fearsome reputation, largely because of their reliance on a massive network of human and not electronic intelligence, the recent events in Syria have started to show fissures and cracks forming in the regime.

Revolutions are unpredictable and hundreds of people can be killed before a small act ignites everyone into taking to the streets. As we saw in Egypt, the ‘uprisings’ built up momentum for many weeks before finally exploding, although it remains to be seen if the revolution is over yet. There seems to be a similar momentum building up in Syria. There has been much speculation about the role of electronic media, facebook and twitter in catalysing the various movements across the Arab world. Although there can be no denying the fact that facebook and twitter allow for instant dissemination of news and important information, I have also seen them being manipulated by some people. One friend posted a video of a ‘protest’ at a mosque in Syria with a short clip of people shouting “Allahu Akbar – God is great”. However, when another friend found a longer version of the same clip, it turned out to be a group of people who were chanting the takbir (Allahu Akbar) after the Friday sermon of one of the state-vetted clerics.

Over the last few weeks I have watched with great interest a debate take place amongst my friends in Syria about their future. Some people made their profile pictures black as a sign of protest, others have used a Syrian flag and yet others have put up a picture of Bashar al-Assad. When I was living in Damascus, opposition to the government was not as widespread as one might have expected and indeed Syrians might be slower than others about coming out to protest.

Indeed, there was even an implicit understanding about what was perceived to be a trade-off between rights and security. However, high corruption and the brutal crackdowns are fast depleting any goodwill that Bashar al-Assad has.

Fadi as-Saeed, a chemistry student at the University of Damascus, was beaten to death on Monday and it seems the administration is now pointing their guns at students, often the most vocal demographic in protests.

Heading for civil war?

Syria is wracked with internal divisions, which have often been exacerbated by the heavy-handedness of the government. The largely secular ruling Ba’ath party has been at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1940s. After a particularly violent few years of assassination attempts and car bombs, in 1982 Hafez al-Assad’s brother Rifaat, who now lives in exile in London, surrounded and bombed Hama. The town was known for being a base of the Muslim Brotherhood and the bombing killed thousands of people. Subsequently, the Brotherhood and indeed all other opposition have effectively been stifled while the Alawi minority has strengthened its position.

The Alawis are the spiritual progeny of a movement started in the 9th century when Ibn Nusayr announced himself as the bab or the hidden gateway to truth (God). Very close in terms of practice to Christians, Alawis or as they also known Nusayris believe in a kind of holy trinity comprised of Mohammad, Ali and Salman al-Farisi, one of the first Persian converts to Islam. The reason they are viewed as non-Muslims is because of their belief in the divinity of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, who was the fourth Caliph and the first Imam for Shi’as. In a bid to consolidate their power the Alawis managed to secure recognition from the Shi’a leader, Musa as-Sadr, in 1972, declaring them to be Muslims. As early as 1936 they procured a decree from the Sunni Chief Mufti of Palestine, al-Haj Amin al-Husaini, recognizing them as Muslims.

However, many Sunnis and some Shi’a ulama, or scholars, continue to view the Alawis as non-Muslims, or even sometimes as apostates.

Apart from the Alawis, the Christians are a sizeable minority and form about 10% of the population and the Druze constitute about 3%. The Sunnis form the majority of the population. Syria also has a large Palestinian refugee population of 500,000 and more than a 1,000,000 Iraqi refugees.

The problems in Syria today are therefore exacerbated by the fact that Syria could be heading for a civil war, due to these old ethnic and sectarian tensions, and might follow the Libyan scenario rather than the Egyptian or Tunisian model. One factor however, that might hold back an all-out war is that there are a multitude of links between the regime and society through army, government and non-official ties. Bashar al-Assad, although seen by some to be a moderate and a reformer is still presiding over institutions that were created during his father’s time. This means that often the ‘old guard’ is the biggest obstacle to implementing reform. However, there have been some token gestures of reform from the President.

Among the small number of concessions that the regime has made are a few that were pushed for by a group of imams, headed by Ramadan al-Buti, perhaps Syria’s most famous cleric. A casino has been shut down and a ban on wearing the niqab, a veil that covers the face as well as the body, in educational institutions is being reversed just as France is implementing its own ban. In other ‘concessions’ the infamous 1963 Emergency Law is now finally to be lifted, but an ‘Anti-terrorism’ law is to be passed instead. About 200,000 Kurds who have hitherto not been granted any rights have been given citizenship. But a majority of the Kurds who form 11-14% of Syria’s population still suffer from various institutional biases. The Kurds have responded by protesting in Qimishli, in the north-east of Syria, under the interesting slogan, ‘we want freedom not citizenship.’

Foreign stakeholders and high stakes

The stakes that many foreign actors have in Syria are also crucial in determining the next steps in the Syrian uprisings. Iran and Hezbollah will fear the loss of an important regional ally and the possible rise of a predominantly Sunni government. Apart from this, even Shi’as who are not ideologically aligned with Iran will be afraid of the loss of the comfort in which the community lives. In particular, the network of religious schools around Sayyid Zainab’s shrine in Damascus are already fearful of what may happen if the Alawis lose power. Israel must worry because at the moment it has an enemy that it ‘knows’ whereas it will be harder to predict whether the new government shall be even more anti-Zionist.

As it is, there is already an air of uncertainty in Israel about what might happen on its western borders, in Egypt. Unlike in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood were social activists and not involved in politics (until now perhaps), the Brotherhood in Syria has been in exile for nearly thirty years – which means that they have little support on the ground and will need time to carve out a political space. Confessions on Syrian state TV from alleged Brotherhood members stirring up trouble seem manufactured so that the crackdown on protesters can be blamed on ‘outsiders.’ The Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia have had a deep interest in promoting Sunni interests and in the case of Saudi Arabia, their brand of Wahhabism. The growth of this school of thought in Syria has been aided by the fact that a large number of Syrian migrants live and work in the Arabian Peninsula. In the last few years, America has reached out to Damascus and sent various envoys and feelers in order to improve relations, but often with limited success. It is evident then, that current events and any change in Syria will have a far larger geo-political impact on the Middle East than Libya, though of course Libya might be more important to Europe financially.

History, repetition and farce

Following the killings and crackdown on various protests from the Southern town of Deraa to the coastal cities of Tartous and Lattakia, Bashar al-Assad has attempted a reshuffle of his government by firing various provincial governors and appointing new people to his cabinet. However, it seems that superficial changes coupled with a completely disproportionate clampdown on protesters will only exacerbate the situation. Although regarded as more sensible than his father, it seems that like all other dictators, Bashar is also out of touch with ordinary Syrians.

Vogue magazine, which seems to make a business out of glamorizing the lives of the wives of various Arab potentates, writes in a recent interview of the president and his wife that, “the household is run on wildly democratic principles.” It goes on to explain how Asma al-Assad – ‘we all vote on what we want, and where’ – and her husband are often ‘out-voted’ by their three children. This in turn explains the chandelier made of comics that hangs above the dinner table. To talk of democracy in their household while a large percentage of people are often detained without any recourse to the law is nothing more than an insult to all Syrians. It is precisely this kind of insensitive, indeed farcical, attitude that might catalyse the current uprisings into a revolution.

About the author: Ali Khan is a PhD student in history at the University of Cambridge whose areas of interest are South Asia and the greater Middle East.

13-18

Analysis: Syria Neighbors Fear Future Without Assad Family

April 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Samia Nakhoul

BEIRUT (Reuters) – From Israel to Iran, Syria’s neighbors are starting to contemplate the possibility of a future without the Assad family as Lords of Damascus, and, whether friends or foes, some don’t like what they see.

Indeed, some are in denial about what they are witnessing.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite movement widely seen as an Iranian proxy in the Middle East, purports to believe the government of President Bashar al-Assad is putting down an insurrection by armed gangs of Salafi or Sunni Muslim fanatics.

In its report of the Syrian army’s assault on the southern city of Deraa, epicenter of the revolt which began last month, Al Manar, Hezbollah’s television, stuck to the official version that the army responded to citizens’ pleas to put an end to “killings and terrorizing operations by extremist groups.”

Hezbollah greeted with glee uprisings that overthrew dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and championed the rights of Bahraini protesters against Saudi military intervention to quash Shi’ite demonstrations.

But it is distinctly unenthusiastic about the risk of losing the support of a Syrian government which is not only its main protector but the conduit for arms supplies from Iran.

Tehran, which regards Syria as a close ally in a mainly Sunni-dominated region suspicious of non-Arab Shi’ite Iran, has called the revolt in Syria “a Zionist plot.”

Yet Israel too seems deeply uneasy about any change in the status quo.

Although they are still formally at war, Syria under the current president and his late father, Hafez al-Assad, has maintained a stable border with the Jewish state since 1973 even though Israel still occupies the Golan Heights.

Fear of Islamists

Israel’s fear — voiced more openly by commentators plugged in to its security establishment than by politicians — is that a successful uprising might replace firm Baath party rule with a more radical government, or one less able or willing to keep radical forces on a leash.

Although Assad sponsors Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he has played a cautious hand.

Behind the strident Arabist rhetoric and ties with Tehran he has kept the option of peace with Israel in play and sought acceptance by Western powers.

“The implications are enormous and totally unpredictable,” said Lebanon-based Middle East analyst Rami Khouri.

“What makes Syria distinctive is that the regime and the system have close structural links with every conflict or player in the region: Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, America, Iraq, Turkey. In all these (cases) there is a Syrian link.”

Demonstrations have spread across the country and grown in intensity, he said, and protesters who began calling for reform of the system were now demanding “the overthrow of the regime.”

At the back of many minds is the experience of Iraq, plunged into years of chaos and sectarian savagery after the US-led invasion in 2003 and removal of Saddam Hussein.

“Everybody in the region is concerned about the destabilization of Syria, even those who don’t like Assad, because there is one thing he brings to the region: a certain kind of predictability and stability,” Khouri said.

“He maintained the truce along the Syrian-Israeli border, people know how his government behaves. Nobody knows what will happen afterwards.”

Alex Fishman, a military affairs journalist for Israel’s best-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth, summed up Israeli apprehension after the Syrian army stormed into Deraa.

“However odd it may sound, the Israeli establishment has a certain sentiment for the Assad family. They kept their promises throughout the years and even talked about an arrangement with Israel on their terms,” he wrote.

“It’s hard to part with a comfortable old slipper, but the top members of the political and security establishment believe that the Syrian regime, in its current format, will change within weeks or months,” Fishman said.

He added: “The sole interest guiding Israel’s conduct is: if what is happening in Syria will ultimately weaken the Damascus-Iran-Hezbollah axis — we’ll come out ahead.”

For Hezbollah and Iran, losing Assad would certainly be a big blow.

“If it (Syria) splits into mini-satellite states that will be bad news for everybody,” Khouri said, suggesting that as in Iraq this might provide an opening for al Qaeda militants.

Across the border in Lebanon, arena of a sectarian civil war in 1975-90 that sucked in regional and world powers and left Syria in control for 29 years, people are also worried.

Any prospect of a new sharpening of tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Arabs and Kurds, or Christians and Muslims, all simmering across the region after being brought to the boil by Iraq, produces shudders.

“I don’t think any wise man is not worried about what happens in Syria because it is a neighbor,” said Talal Salman, editor of Beirut’s daily as-Safir.

“Any earthquake in Syria will shake Lebanon with its fragile make-up. Syria’s stability is in our interest.”

For now, Assad has decided to follow in the footsteps of his father and resort to military force, not reform, to put down the protests at a cost so far of more than 400 lives, according to human rights groups.

Monday’s deployment of tanks in Deraa looks like an indicator of what is to come. A source close to the Syrian military said Assad and his security establishment had taken a decision to wage war on protesters across the country.

But Ali al-Atassi, a prominent Syrian activist whose father was a former president jailed for 22 years by the elder Assad, said “another Hama” was impossible.

In 1982, Hafez al-Assad sent in the army to crush an armed lslamist uprising, killing of up to 30,000 people.

“Syria has reached a turning point. It cannot go back to where it was,” said Atassi.

He said the Western habit of accommodating dictatorships in return for stability was no longer valid.

“In Tunis, Egypt and elsewhere for years, Arab leaders and the West gave the Arab people a binary choice: stability or chaos; despotism or Islamism.

“After what happened in Tunis and Egypt, we discovered that there is a third option which is the democratic way. Sure, the Islamists will play a role in it, but they will not have the leading role,” Atassi said.

While many analysts argue that life after Assad would be hazardous or that he may prove impossible to remove, others say a relatively smooth transition is imaginable over time because Damascus has institutions that can shoulder responsibility.

They include the army, whose backbone is Sunni although key posts are controlled by members of Assad’s Alawite minority.

What most observers now dismiss is the possibility of reforms substantial enough to meet popular demands.

Even if Assad wanted to enact wide-scale reforms, they argue, he lacks the power to prevail over entrenched interests in the security forces and military intelligence.

“He is the prisoner of a certain structure and at the same time part of it,” Atassi said.

“The next 2-3 weeks are really critical. They will determine whether he will remain in power or whether his regime will collapse,” Khouri told Reuters.

(editing by Paul Taylor)

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Obama Administration Renews Sanctions on Syria

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sue Pleming

2009-05-07T125052Z_01_SYR06_RTRMDNP_3_SYRIA-US

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem (R) meets Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, in Damascus May 7, 2009. The portrait on the wall shows Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Friday he had renewed sanctions against Syria because it posed a continuing threat to U.S. interests, despite sending two envoys to Damascus this week to try to improve ties.

In a letter notifying Congress of his decision, Obama accused Damascus of supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining U.S. and international efforts in trying to stabilize Iraq.

“For these reasons I have determined that it is necessary to continue in effect the national emergency declared with respect to this threat and to maintain in force the sanctions,” Obama said in the letter to Congress.

The sanctions, imposed by former President George W. Bush and which are up for renewal annually, prohibit arms exports to Syria, block Syrian airlines from operating in the United States and deny Syrians suspected of being associated with terrorist groups access to the U.S. financial system.

While the United States has made clear it wants better ties with Syria, which appears on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, the renewal of the sanctions shows it is not yet ready for a dramatic improvement.

“We need to see concrete steps from the Syrian government to move in another direction,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters.

Obama signed the executive order extending the sanctions on Thursday, shortly after two U.S. envoys met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Damascus.
The visit by senior State Department official Jeffrey Feltman and White House National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro was their second since Obama took office in January and started talking to Damascus.

Tough Words

The two officials discussed Syria’s role in Iraq, where Washington has accused Damascus of allowing fighters to cross into its neighbor, and Lebanon, where the United States says Syria plays a destabilizing role.

“Part of Feltman’s trip to the region was trying to get the Syrians to take some steps that will move us toward a better relationship,” Wood said. “But there is a lot that Syria needs to do.”

The United States wants a commitment from Syria that it will not interfere with a June election in neighboring Lebanon, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited last month to show U.S. support.

The administration hopes direct talks with Syria, which will continue despite the sanctions, will weaken its ties to Iran.

Syria and Iran are the main backers of Hizbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim political and guerrilla group that fought a war against Israel in 2006 and has representatives in the Lebanese government and parliament.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad indicated this week he did not plan to change course. After meeting Iran’s president in Damascus, he said their strategic relationship contributed to Middle East stability.

The administration is reviewing whether to send back an ambassador to Damascus but a senior U.S. official said this week a decision had not yet been taken.

The U.S. ambassador was pulled out of Syria after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria denies any involvement in the killing but the United States pointed fingers at Damascus.

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