Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, April 27th, 2011
France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain summoned on Wednesday respective Syrian ambassadors to condemn the use of violence against protesters by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Inhabitant of Damascus (A retired diplomat living in Damascus who prefers to remain anonymous)
This is a sad time in Syria. The local version of the ‘Arab Uprising’ is now 5 weeks old, and entering a new phase. Human rights organisations estimate 453 have been killed. The expulsion of foreign media (with the exception of Al Jazeera, coralled in central Damascus); the one sided propagandist coverage of state media; and the limitations of protester YouTube clips, severely limits local and international understanding of what is going on.
What is clear is that the pro-democracy movement has failed to get significant numbers on the streets. Their biggest demonstration appears to have been in Homs at 20,000. So how many have protested in the country? I estimate 400,000 max. That is less than 2% of Syria’s 22 million. 98% of the population have stayed home and while yearning for more freedoms, participation in the running of the country, and a relaxation of the police state, do not wish to face the likely chaos that an overthrow of the Batthi regime would entail. The Iraq and Lebanon situations are ongoing reminders of what might occur. There has been very little enthusiasm in Damascus (except in the outlying suburb of Douma), or in Aleppo. Nearly half Syria’s population lives in these two cities. The pro-democracy movement has failed to organise effectively, and lacks cohesion. The fact remains that while Assad’s reputation has been severely dented by the government’s ineptitude and brutality in dealing with the protesters and the so-called reform agenda, most Syrians respect Assad enough to see him as a hope for meaningful reform. While they will not give him the benefit of the doubt forever, the fear of chaos, including secular conflict, is very real. In this respect they see the pro-democracy movement as naive and out of touch with reality.
State TV has run detailed footage of the funerals of security force personnel for around 3 weeks. 25 were buried yesterday (26 April), names read, families interviewed, and another 21 today. They were apparently killed in Deraa. This coverage in my view presents hard evidence that there are indeed groups shooting soldiers and police, and shooting at firemen and ambulance drivers. I estimate that around 60 service personnel have died. The regime claims that there are ‘armed gangs/terrorists’ shooting at security forces and civilians. The regime claims that some have been arrested, and have confessed to being paid and armed (through mosque contacts). The ‘gang members’ have appeared on TV with caches of weapons. These claims cannot be independently verified.
Who killed these security personnel? The regime does not accuse the pro-democracy movement. This is significant. Who might these armed gangs be? There are plenty of likely suspects. Syria has many enemies. Lebanese sunnis? Lebanese phalangist Christians; sunni Muslim radicals, including the Muslim Brotherhood; the Kurdish minority; Israel’s mossad; disaffected Alawi insiders including ex-VP Kaddam; fringe elements of the security forces? All are possible. The region is awash with weapons and the desert and mountain borders are porous. If armed gangs are responsible, which seems highly likely, this is a complication that sets Syria apart from Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. This dilemma should be recognised as states rush to get on the condemn Assad bandwagon.
It is also difficult to obtain verifiable information on who is responsible for the estimated 453 civilian deaths. With no independent media on the ground, and state media not providing this coverage, international media must rely on YouTube. And power cuts to Daraa and Douma severely limit internet access. (The regime clearly has something to hide.) Many of the YouTube clips show unarmed protesters coming under fire and being killed and wounded. For the most part they do not show who is doing the shooting. Some clips however do strongly indicate that security forces are responsible. It is clear that there have been orders to fire on unarmed civilians. Assad admitted as much when he gave orders, since amended after armed attacks, for security forces not to carry live ammunition. Most of the civilian deaths probably have been caused by the security forces. However some armed groups may be causing havoc by also shooting civilians. The fact that some units of the regime’s security apparatus do not wear uniforms (we see them around Damascus with their AKs every day) adds to confusion.
As the UN Security Council considers a response to the tragic and worsening Syrian situation, it is important to UNSC credibility that the circumstances facing the Assad regime are accurately considered. While the current crackdowns in Deraa and Douma seem dire, any international response should be based on the known facts. Who is killing Syrian security personnel?
More than 230 ruling Baath members resign in Syria
April 27, 2001
Another 203 members of Syria’s ruling Baath party announced their resignation Wednesday in protest of the deadly crackdown on protesters, raising the number to 233, according to lists seen by AFP.
The latest group to step down were members from the Houran region, which covers the flashpoint town of Daraa in the south of the country. Earlier 30 members resigned from the restive city of Banias in northwest Syria.
“The security services have demolished the values with which [it] grew up. We denounce and condemn everything that has taken place and announce with regret our resignation from the party,” they said in a signed statement.
“Practices of the security services against our unarmed citizens … are against all human values and the slogans of the party,” they wrote.
The Baath party signatories from the Banias region condemned “the house raids and the indiscriminate use of live fire against people, homes, mosques and churches.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been rocked by unprecedented protests since March 15 demanding reform and an end to a draconian emergency law.
Shock in Syria: the Messy and Unlikely Alternatives for Bashar
by David W. Lesch
For Syria Comment
Early this year, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad portrayed his country as being different, almost immune from the uprisings that had beset Tunisia and Egypt. The mouthpieces of the Syrian regime consistently echoed this arrogance, even to the point of siding with the protestors in their Arab brethren countries. They pointed out that the septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders of these states were out of touch with their populations. They were also corrupt lackeys of the United States. The implication, of course, was that Asad, a relatively young 45, was in touch with the Arab youth. He also confronted the United States and Israel in the region and supported the resistance forces of Hamas and Hizbullah, thus brandishing credentials that played well in the Arab street.
This may have bought him some time, but it was a misreading of the situation—or denial of it. Having met with Asad a number of times over the past 7 years, I can almost guarantee that he was absolutely shocked when the uprisings in the Arab world started to seep into his own country. I believe he truly thought he was safe and secure…and popular beyond condemnation. But not in today’s new Middle East, where the stream of information cannot be controlled as it has been in the past. The perfect storm of higher commodity prices, Wikileaks, and the youth bulge—and their weapon of mass destruction, the social media—have bared for all to see widespread socio-economic problems, corruption, and restricted political space, and authoritarian regimes can no longer shape or contain this information. In this Syria was no different.
One might recognize the stages of shock in Asad, similar to the five stages of grief. Following his denial, Asad displayed incredulity, even anger that fueled a blatant triumphalism, apparent in his initial speech of March 30 that incorrectly placed the bulk of the blame for the uprisings in Syria on conspirators and foreign enemies, thus ignoring the very real domestic problems that lay at the root of public frustration and despair.
Asad then reached the bargaining stage, where one attempts to do anything possible to postpone one’s fate. There is recognition of problems and attempts to address them, apparent in Asad’s speech to his new cabinet on April 16, when he announced the lifting of the almost 50-year state of emergency law, among other proposed reforms. But the protests and associated violence continued. The most dangerous phase could be if Asad withdraws into seclusion, trying to come to grips with the reality of the situation. This is dangerous because Bashar might cede his leadership role to others, and filling the void could be hardliners who advocate an even harsher crackdown. This may be what is happening now. One hopes that Asad passes through this stage very quickly and reasserts himself toward the final one, that of acceptance.
If I could visit with Bashar al-Asad today I would tell him that he has three choices. First, he could continue to unleash the hounds and brutally repress the uprising. He would stay in power, but then he would become an international pariah and join the ranks of the Saddam Hussein’s and Pol Pot’s of this world, and he would eventually most likely meet the same fate. I know Asad fairly well. He is at base a likable guy, a good family man. Believe me he does not want this legacy. On the other hand, he has been isolated before by the United States and the international community, especially following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005…and survived, even prospered. There is less international leverage against Syria than was the case with Egypt, Tunisia and others. Perhaps he believes he can survive again. It is currently a dangerous phase for both sides. The regime’s crackdown is playing right into the hands of opposition elements. With every death more Syrians will coalesce around the idea that Bashar must go…and nothing short of this will suffice; however, this could be dangerous for the opposition because if the regime thinks its only choices are elimination or survival, it will obviously choose the latter and do what is necessary.
Second, he could try to muddle through as he has, with a mix of reforms and crackdowns. The latest escalation by the regime, sanctioning a more prominent role for the military, does not necessarily indicate an abandonment of this approach. The regime could be engaging in a show of force to deter others from joining the uprising and creating the critical mass necessary to upend the regime, as happened in Egypt. He could also be demonstrating military support for the regime, and any hopes of separating the two, similar to what happened in Egypt, are superfluous. The regime also does not want to look weak, and it could very well be that the government might announce another set of reforms soon…and wanting to do so from a position of strength rather than being seen to be giving into the demands of the protesters. But the opposition is not going away, the demands are getting stiffer, the protestors bolder. This could lead to a long-term cycle of spasmodic protests and associated violence. If this back and forth continues, Bashar will be incrementally de-legitimized, especially if the economic effects of political instability exacerbate an already stressed Syrian economy and undermine critical support for the regime. Sooner or later, one of three things will happen: Bashar, his wife, and his children will be hauled away in chains like Mubarak and his family; they will be murdered either by masses storming the gates or elements close to him who, seeing the writing on the wall, switch sides; or they could escape to join the growing dictator-in-exile club, living a life of anonymity and regret in a strange land.
Third, he could accept the inevitable (and the reality of these other less desirable alternatives) and do what is in the long-term best interests of himself and his country before it is too late (and it may already be): establish a new precedent in the Arab world as well as a positive legacy for himself by announcing real political reform, including new party and election laws, the elimination of article 8 of the Syrian constitution that secures the rule of the Baath party, and, most importantly perhaps, setting presidential terms limits. The days of individuals—or father and son tag teams—ruling 20, 30, or 40 years are over. People want to choose their own leaders and want governments responsive to their demands and changing circumstances, not ossified, corrupt regimes. Bashar needs to address the people directly, not indirectly via a sycophantic parliament and cabinet. He made his mark in Syria because he seemed different. He mingled with everyday Syrians and was not the aloof, secluded tyrant. His wife has been quite visible and civically active. He needs to look into the camera and address his people, admitting the mistakes, redressing them, and mapping out a way forward. If Asad does this, who knows, maybe he could still be president for one of these new presidential terms, riding a new wave of popularity with the silent majority and an organizational lead over others. After that, however, spending more time with your family and being an elder statesman who is respected for doing what was thought to be impossible is not such a bad outcome.
David W. Lesch is Professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. Among his books are: The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria; The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History; The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment; and 1979: The Year That Shaped the Middle East.