Damascenes Rally for the Government Even as Economy Enters Crisis Mode and Touble in the North Expands

Many Syrian commentators are upset on my site because al arabia and al jazeera english web sites did not report of the Pro-Assad demonstration in Damascus yesterday.
One commenter wrote:

Would’ve been funny if international media had reported on the long flag demonstration on Mezzeh Autostrade with: “We can’t indepently verify the following video uploaded to youtube, but allegedly a mass demonstration took place in Damascus today.”

Regarding coverage, if you don’t allow journalists in, don’t cry wolf when you’re not getting the mediaspace you think you deserve. In any case, this demonstration was a step in the right direction. 2300 m flag representing 23 million people. A show of unity at its core…..

Another commenter:

The great Syrian flag parade got plenty of coverage in the west — even on my local rag, the Vancouver Sun. As one of our other Canucki-residents, Syrian Almighty Knight, will attest, the flag even got coverage in Quebec — even on the dreadful CBC which was so unkind to Mr Almighty Knight in the past.

From the Australian

SYRIAN refugees arriving in Turkey came with new horror stories of advancing Syrian troops raping and mutilating women. …. The overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim refugees chanted slogans against Mr Assad’s mostly Alawite security forces and its Shia Muslim backers in Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. One chant went: “No Iran. No Hezbollah. We want someone who believes in God.”

In Damascus, the regime mounted an orchestrated show of support, when thousands gathered to unfurl a national flag that was 1.6km long.

The pro-Assad demonstration along Mezzeh Autostrad in Damascus underlines that the majority of Syrians seem to be sticking by the government’s side. The regime is not only Alawi. Christians and minorities continue to show support for stability. So do many Sunnis. Certainly this is true of the middle class and upper middle class, who have the most to lose if the country trends toward greater civil strife. Their comfortable lives will be destroyed. Mezzeh Autostrad is the center of middle and upper-middle class Syrian society in Damascus. Of course, no one knows what the true percentages of support for either side are.

Another factor contributing to the loyalty of the Sunnis for the regime is the wide-spread worry about “foreign conspiracy.” Listen to this recent khutab by al-Buti, Syria’s senior Sunni cleric. He describes the “plan” that “has already begun” to destroy Syria and divide it and turn it into an endless battlefield of attack and counter-attack. The implication is that the US and Israel are behind this plan.

The Syrian opposition itself is deeply divided over the notion of foreign intervention. The leadership at the Antalya meeting took a strong and united stand against any foreign intervention. The secular activists who live in the West are, however, trying to drum up support among Western governments for greater and more punishing economic sanctions, such as a blockade on Syrian oil and gas exports.

But this lobbying is not welcomed by all opposition elements. See this post at the blog, “Syrian Revolts,” which is rather critical of the Activists in the West who have taken money from Washington and who advocate greater involvement by Western governments in bringing down the Assad regime.  Even in Turkey, there is opposition to Erdogan’s government joining the West in its efforts to undermine the Syrian government. Here is what one Turk wrote me today:

“I am a Turkish, but I really don’t understand what Prime Minister Erdoğan want to do. Turkish government is coming near US imperialist policies to the Middle East. What a pity. I think all Syrians should protect national unity and values of Syria. We both -Syrian and Turkish- reject foreign interference to Syria…”

I have asked several Turkish friends if they believe their government might allow a Syrian insurgency to organize and operate from Turkey, particularly if Western government pressure it to do so and offer to pay for it. They all said, “no” and explained that anxiety about the Kurdish situation, possible Syrian support for the PKK, and the fear of getting sucked into a Syrian civil war would preclude this.

The most obvious future for Syria is that the present situation continues for much longer than we think it can. The West, exhausted by foreign wars, economic overstretch, and the enormity of taking on Syria, will refuse to commit itself to the rebel cause militarily. All the same, it may add to the economic pressure on Syria by slowly ratcheting up sanctions. Even if the Assad regime can repress the uprising, it is hard to see how it can re-integrate Syria back into the international community and attract tourism and foreign investment again with the growing list of sanctions that have been imposed on it and its top statesmen.

The economy is likely to be the government’s Achilles heel. Syria doesn’t have Iraq’s or Libya’s oil, making the economic outlook very different. Bankruptcy could lead to a tipping point, once the government is unable to pay salaries, etc…. Could growing economic pressure lead the nation’s elites to abandon the regime? This is clearly the hope of the opposition.

Here is a report describing the situation in Aleppo from a local correspondent:

The train system has been shut down. It was deemed too dangerous to travel on as it stops at too many stations. Traveling by car is also very hard. Flying between Aleppo and Damascus is now the only form of travel that most people are comfortable with.

With Aleppo residents shunning nonessential travel, Latakia’s hotels are offering steep discounts to lure vacationers. A large duplex which was priced at syp 13,000 a night last year is now to be had for syp 1800 on a special offer. The Meridian in Lattakia has an offer for syp 2000 a night with breakfast.

Given that the conflict reached Maaret Al nuaman (40 minute drive), the residents of Aleppo feel that things have moved closer to home. The check points at the entrance to the city now experience delays of up to 45 minutes at times as cars wait for their turn to be checked. Women avoid venturing out alone past 6 pm. Only restaurants inside the city are seeing business. Those located on the outskirts have seen a significant hit as most residens prefer to stay away from such locations at night.

There have been a number of small attempts to start anti government marches. Other residents and the security services have quickly moved to disperse any small crowds before they grow in size.

A christian gentleman that we both know was due to get married on July 9th, but he was caught last month after having written online against the regime. After he was questioned and released, he resumed his writings. He was arrested again last week and is yet to be released. His wedding is now in serious doubt.

NEWS ROUND UP FOLLOWS

EU Likely To Adopt New Syria Sanctions At EU Council-

BRUSSELS -(Dow Jones)- The European Union is set to adopt a third round of sanctions on Syria over the government’s crackdown on protesters there in time for the June 24European Council, EU diplomats said Thursday.  The new sanctions push comes at a time when the EU and U.S. have been seeking to ratchet up pressure on Syria through the United Nations Security Council but have seen their efforts stymied by Russia, among others. At least two countries have circulated a list of names to be targeted, diplomats said. One list includes 12 individuals and firms or other entities connected to them…. However no decision is expected to be made until EU heads of government gather for the quarterly European Council on Friday. The EU has already slapped a travel ban and an asset freeze on 23 top Syrian officials, including President Bashar Al-Assad.

UN chief tells Syria’s Assad ‘to stop killing people’

(PTI) — UN chief Ban Ki-moon today urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime “to stop killing people,” as pressure mounted on Damascus over its widening crackdown in the north.

The Soldier Who Gave Up on Assad to Protect Syria’s People
By Rania Abouzeid Jun 13, 2011

TIME speaks to a colonel who says he defected from the Assad regime after seeing its forces allegedly open fire indiscriminately on fleeing citizens ….. the 22-year military veteran says he burned his uniform in disgust more than a week ago, …. “I defected from the Syrian Arab army and took responsibility for protecting civilians in Jisr al-Shoughour,” he says. “I was late in taking this decision.” His lower lip quivers. He struggles to maintain his composure. After a long pause and several deep breaths, the man with the thinning salt-and-pepper hair resumes: “I feel like I am responsible for the deaths of every single martyr in Syria.” ….

Letter to president Asad from Adonis: (In Arabic, Al-Safir) Thanks Idaf

The Socio-Economic Crisis in Syria – Paul Rivlin
Tel Aviv University Notes

….Unlike Egypt, where the urban upper-middle class played a major role in bringing down Mubarek, many of Syria’s urban-dwellers have experienced improvements in their standard of living in recent years. In the countryside, most of the population has experienced rapidly increasing fuel and food prices, drought and falling living standards. As a result of liberalization, Syrian markets have been flooded with foreign goods and that has made manufacturing less profitable. The poor in smaller towns have been driving the protest movement as the result of economic pressures and it was these sections of the population that Assad sought to win over when in April he announced higher wages for civil servants, new jobs, more subsidies, and the creation of a social fund.

The protests have caused other problems. The trucks that transport goods through Syria to the Arabian Peninsula have slowed to a trickle, cutting off a valuable source of revenue in border taxes. Consumer confidence

has declined and so has demand in the economy. In order to pay higher wages and cover the cost of higher salaries without new sources of income, the government has announced it will increase the state budget deficit.

The apparent end of liberalization means that structural problems will persist. With the root causes of Syria’s economic malaise not dealt with and no prospect of significant capital inflows, it is hard to know how economic growth can be restarted….

Syria’s finances under scrutiny
By Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut, Roula Khalaf in London and an FT reporter in Damascus, June 14 2011

Syria could by the end of the year be forced to look for outside aid to keep its economy afloat, analysts warn, as the country reels from three months of protests and a huge military crackdown.

As troops advanced on the northern town of Maarat al-Numan on Tuesday, observers increasingly questioned the health of Syrian finances.

With the tourism sector devastated by the unrest, foreign investment on pause and government spending rising to help ease the discontent, analysts say foreign exchange reserves at the central bank are being depleted as the government tries to stem pressure on the local currency. The Syrian pound slipped about 15 per cent against the dollar in April and sells for less than the official rate on the black market.

“The reserves are certainly doing a lot of work propping up the Syrian pound but the exact level of depletion since the crisis began is impossible to say,” says a western analyst in Damascus.

High oil prices have boosted revenue from Syria’s limited oil exports, which, combined with a relatively good year for agriculture after several seasons of drought, may prevent dramatic economic contraction. Oil revenues bring in an estimated $7m-$8m a day. Opposition figures say they would like companies to stop buying Syrian oil to raise economic pressure on the regime.

But the combination of lower revenues from other parts of the economy and the additional spending burden means Syria “could run out of money”, according to Chris Phillips, chief Syria analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Analysts say the regime could survive on foreign reserves and domestic bank lending for a while – one of the lower estimates is six months – but would then probably have to turn to oil-rich Gulf countries for help.

Whether they would come to the rescue is uncertain. Opposition figures say Qatar, one of Syria’s closest friends in the Gulf, has been distancing itself from the regime. But both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia appear afraid of giving up on President Bashar al-Assad for fear of an unknown alternative.

Tour operators say hotel occupancy in Aleppo and Damascus is close to zero. The unrest has slowed trade and disrupted manufacturing.

Commerce, even in the relatively calm capital, is down about 50 per cent, according to local economists. “It’s a time of crisis now,” says one prominent businessman in Damascus. “This generation is not used to a crisis, so everyone is cutting back and spending less.”

Meanwhile, the regime has overstretched itself on spending commitments in efforts to quell the unrest.

Before the crisis broke out this year the regime had wanted to reduce fuel subsidies and liberalise the state-led economic model. But after the unrest in the region began, the regime decided to raise heating oil allowances, diesel subsidies and civil servants’ salaries, and cut food taxes.

Local economists estimate that the pay rise to civil servants alone could cost the government S£50bn ($1bn) – or about 6 per cent of the annual budget

Even with optimistic growth forecasts, the budget deficit is likely to be 7.7 per cent – almost double the 2009 figure.

Syria is not well connected to international lending markets and domestic banks have limited capital. Cutting spending seems politically unfeasible, international investment seems to be on hold, and printing money risks hyperinflation.

“Their only option will be to raise capital from foreign (sovereign) lenders,” says a western analyst in Damascus.

Mohammed al-Jleilati, the minister of finance, insisted last week that the economy was “strong and healthy”, claiming Syria was self-reliant in food and sitting on foreign currency reserves worth $18bn.

However, according to Mr Phillips, “the goal at the moment seems to be stay in power whatever the costs, the costs to both the population and the economy”.

Marc Lynch: Expellus Assadum!
011-06-15

As the violence in Syria grinds on with no resolution in sight, a chorus of voices is predictably rising demanding that the Obama administration do more to hasten the exit of Bashar al-Asad. Their impatience is understandable, as is the outrage …

The Arab League has started to speak out about Syria, to the fury of Damascus. [From the Guardian]

The league’s Egyptian secretary general Amr Moussa (left) said:

Though their views differ, Arab states are all worried, angry and actively monitoring the current crisis in Syria. What we are hearing and monitoring, about many victims falling, indicates great tumult in Syria … The situation in Syria should not be left in this state.

Continuation of the status quo could lead to what may not be desired … for Syria.

Syria’s representative to the league, Youssef Ahmadm described Moussa’s comments as “unbalanced” and politically motivated.

Days before leaving his post Moussa calls for a kind of foreign intervention in the Syrian affairs, when the Libyan blood, shed by Nato air strikes as a result for a [UN] security council resolution, based, regrettably on an Arab demand in which Moussa’s efforts immensely contributed, isn’t dry yet.

9.23am: Syria’s sectarian tensions in Jisr al-Shughour and beyond are mapped out by the New York Times’s Beirut bureau chief, Anthony Shadid.

Jisr al-Shoughour, where the government used tanks and helicopters to crush what it called “armed terrorist gangs,” sits in a landscape as complicated as anywhere in Syria. It is a Sunni town with an Alawite town less than a mile to the south, interspersed with Christian and more Sunni settlements…

Syrian officials have suggested that militant Islamists have manipulated popular grievances and warned that the government’s collapse would endanger the relative security of Christians and other minorities there. Opposition activists have played down sectarian divisions, which they describe as a government ploy to sustain its four decades of rule. If anything, they say, the government has stoked tensions in a cynical bid to divide and rule.

Lucianne: Breaking: Syrian state documents ’show Assad orchestrated Nakba Day raids on Golan Heights’
2011-06-14

I have just been forward what appear to be Syrian state documents leaked by the governor of al-Qunaitera, in south-west Syria, which suggest that the regime fully orchestrated the “Nakba Day” raids of Palestinian refugees into the Israeli …

Syria slaps travel ban on Prez cousin
AFP and Reuters Damascus/Amman, June 13, 2011

A Syrian official inquiry into deaths among anti-government protesters has barred two top officials from going abroad, one of them a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, state media said on Monday. Ateb Najib, a cousin of the president and head of security in Daraa, where protests against the government erupted in mid-March and Faisal Kulthum, the town’s former governor, were both banned from foreign travel. “Immunity is not accorded to those who commit crimes and… The law must be applied,” state media quoted the commission of inquiry as saying.

TIME MAGAZINE Exclusive: Grand Jury Investigates CIA Abuses, Considers ‘War Crimes’ and ‘Torture’ in Connection with Abu Ghraib’s ‘Ice Man’

Former colleague and TIME contributor Adam Zagorin breaks news here on Battleland with exclusive reporting that details the latest federal action into the infamous death of the “Ice Man” at Iraq‘s Abu Ghraib prison in 2003: It has been nearly a decade…FULL ARTICLE AT TIME MAGAZINE

Azmi Bishara moderates his Syria views

  1. change should take place safely over a number of years, not quickly!
  2. Saudi channels are promoting sectarianism
  3. Many Syrians opposed to the regime are using arms and violence and it is clear
  4. Turkey obviously has an agenda and the regime must keep some distance in the future.
  5. Only Syria can save the Middle East, if Syria falls we lose the Middle East.
  6. Syria is needed to preserve Arab nationalism through its genuinely nationalistic stand

Jerusalem Post: Gantz: ‘Assad doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring’
2011-06-13

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz on Monday said that the Middle East “is changing before our eyes and the Syrian president also does not know what tomorrow will bring and it is up to Israel and the IDF to adapt to new realities [in the region …

The Soldier Who Gave Up on Assad to Protect Syria’s People,
By Rania Abouzeid / Outside Khirbet al-Jouz, Syria Monday, June 13, 2011, Time

The Syrian colonel sits cross-legged on a patch of moist soil, wearing a borrowed plaid shirt and pale green trousers, surrounded by dozens of men who had fled the besieged northern Syrian city of Jisr al-Shoughour to an orchard a few hundred meters from the Turkish border. He says his name is Hussein Harmoush and shows TIME a laminated military ID card indicating his name and title. Everyone around calls him moqadam — Arabic for his rank. A colonel with the 11th Armored Division of the army’s 3rd Corps, the 22-year military veteran says he burned his uniform in disgust more than a week ago, starting with the rank designated on his epaulets, then the rest of it.

“I defected from the Syrian Arab army and took responsibility for protecting civilians in Jisr al-Shoughour,” he says. “I was late in taking this decision.” His lower lip quivers. He struggles to maintain his composure. After a long pause and several deep breaths, the man with the thinning salt-and-pepper hair resumes: “I feel like I am responsible for the deaths of every single martyr in Syria.”….

Harmoush, a native of the Syrian city of Homs, some 160 km from Damascus, the capital, says his orders were clear. His division was told to leave its base in Homs and “sweep the towns,” starting at al-Serminiyye and continuing 5 km north to Jisr al-Shoughour. “We were told that we were doing this to capture armed gangs, but I didn’t see any. I saw soldiers indiscriminately shooting people like they were hunting, burning their fields, cutting down their olive trees. There was no resistance in the towns. I saw people fleeing on foot to the hills who were shot in the back.”

According to Harmoush, the soldiers headed toward nearby Jisr al-Shoughour. More soldiers joined them. Soon, Harmoush says, he had 120 men under his command, including a lieutenant called Mazin who joined him along with his unit. They were there after June 5, the day hundreds of people who had gathered in a public garden were shot. “In Jisr al-Shoughour, we decided to defend the people until the last moment, but we had light weapons, rifles. They had tanks. We set up traps, an ambush. That brought us some time to evacuate civilians.”

At one point, he recalls, about three dozen soldiers approached the defectors, claiming they wanted to join them. Instead, they opened fire on the defectors, killing many. “I tell you, I wouldn’t have made that mistake,” he says bitterly of the decision to let them join. “Shouldn’t have made it, but things were crazy. The shelling was so heavy, the civilians were all around us — I didn’t have time to think. So some of the soldiers were martyred, others fled into the hills, and some came over near the Turkish border.”

For the past few days, Harmoush and a handful of his men have been helping residents of Jisr al-Shoughour trek across the hills toward the safety of the Turkish border. His own family is now safely in Turkey. He won’t divulge whether he still has his weapon, nor if there are other defectors among the refugees in the fields, although many residents say there are. Harmoush is grateful for the opportunity to help his people but is haunted by some of the atrocities he says he has witnessed committed by the Syrian security forces.

WSJ(6/15) Turkish Premier Scolds Syria
2011-06-14  (From THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)

By Ayla Albayrak in Istanbul and Nour Malas in Abu Dhabi Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressed Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to put an end to violence Tuesday, in the two leaders’ first telephone conversation since their once-close relations appeared to sour a week ago. The phone call came as Syria’s military extended its crackdown to new cities and as refugees continued to cross the country’s northern border into Turkey. There were 8,500 Syrians in Turkish camps as of Tuesday afternoon, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said in televised remarks. Mr. Cicek said Syria’s increasingly isolated leader had initiated the phone call to congratulate Mr. Erdogan on his party’s victory in elections Sunday.

Egypt’s Secret Military Trials Erode Activists’ Trust

“It’s estimated that at least 7,000 people — including protesters, bloggers and dissidents — have been jailed by the army since Mubarak stepped down.”

Today, the Independent reports:

There is growing concern that the religious tensions sparked by the Syrian uprising will be imported into this part of Turkey which has a delicate demographic balance between Sunnis, Alevis and Christians. the Turkish government began to ease a block on media access to the refugees, a policy that had prevented most refugees from giving their accounts of what is happening in Syria. A foreign ministry official said the government must protect refugees’ identities, or they could be harmed on their return to Syria.

THE SYRIAN INTERPRETER

I translate video clips of the current protests, demonstrations and other videos related to them. The link below leads to a youtube “channel” I created (thesyrianinterpreter), and to which I upload & re-upload protests’ videos (42 translated vids so far). Then, I add English subtitles to them, to the clips/videos I think ‘everyone’ should be able to understand.

The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World

After three years’ work, my book launches today – a nonfiction noir mystery set in the Arab world, published by Random House, and available now at www.josephbraude.com. The book is called The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World. It’s an entertaining summer read and a colorful tour of North Africa that Kirkus calls “one of the most affecting, sympathetic accounts of Arab culture in recent memory.”

Publicizing books is extremely difficult, so if you’d care to help me spread the word, I’d be very grateful. Purchases on Amazon via my Web site today will help draw attention to the book online by boosting its ranking. It would be enormously valuable as well if you would share a link to the Web site, www.josephbraude.com, on Facebook……

Syria’s opposition takes dose of realism
By Roula Khalaf, Middle East Editor,  Financial Times: June 15 2011

Syria’s opposition is stepping up its lobbying efforts to secure a tougher international stance against the Damascus regime and encourage army officers to join the pro-democracy movement.

After visiting London this week a delegation of opposition figures is set to hold meetings in Russia, a friend of the Syrian regime that has blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning the brutal crackdown against the three-month uprising, and Turkey, which the opposition sees as the best place to launch an initiative that could accelerate a political transition.

While Libya’s rebels were quick to attract international intervention, and even Yemen’s popular revolt drew Gulf neighbours in with a mediation plan, Syrians have essentially found themselves on their own.

Opposition activists say they know no one will intervene militarily, even if western officials describe the crackdown as savage and barbaric. But Syrian protesters have also been deprived of support from Arab states, most of which are staying on the sidelines, afraid of what might follow the possible demise of President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria’s opposition faces an uphill battle on several fronts. Activists leading the lobbying delegation say they are realistic, both about the credibility they have yet to impose and about their own goals.

The Syrian uprising has been leaderless, with protests organised by activists and students in local communities that are only now connecting with each other and unifying their messages and slogans. Many organisers have been jailed and others have been forced to go underground.

Until a few weeks ago there was no such thing as a Syrian opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that is thought to still have sympathy on the ground, was destroyed in the 1980s by Mr Assad’s father and has only regrouped abroad since then. Beyond the Islamists, there are a few nationalist and leftist parties with little popular support, a Kurdish minority divided into more than a dozen parties, and a disparate collection of human rights and political activists.

As protests have spread in Syria, opposition activists abroad have been trying to unify their ranks, and have so far organised two conferences financed by sympathetic businessmen, and elected a 31-member council that includes the Brotherhood and the Kurds. Some of those members are now leading the lobbying effort, though they openly say they are not leaders of the opposition.

Najib Ghadbian, a Syrian academic at the University of Arkansas, says the council is co-ordinating with two main committees that have emerged inside Syria and is trying to agree a representative local leadership.

Like others in the opposition, Mr Ghadbian says there is no magic solution for Syria: the regime will go only if it fractures from within. Cracks have appeared in the lower ranks of the military but not yet reached a senior military or diplomatic figure.

Comments (51)


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51. AmericaninSham said:

Rami Makhlouf is putting in beau-coups of money to try and bolster the Syrian economy, amongst his proposed projects are charities. I think the Syrians, or at least my husband’s family here in Damascus, are not at all upset by the notion. Not so too little too late.

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June 22nd, 2011, 4:10 pm

 

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