Posted by Joshua on Saturday, May 7th, 2011
Antigovernment protesters gathered Friday after noon prayer in the coastal town of Baniyas, Syria, in a cellphone photo provided by an onlooker.
Anthony Shadid gives the best assessment today
Protests Across Syria Despite Military Presence
May 6, 2011 New York Times
The worst violence was reported in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, where activists described a chaotic, bloody day, as tanks entered the town. The government said 10 soldiers had been killed there by what it described as “terrorists,” while activists said at least 9 soldiers had defected to their side. Sixteen protesters were killed, they said.
“We answered the call to protest today, but the intelligence forces attacked us right away by opening fire on us,” said a resident in Homs, reached by telephone.
Another resident there said the security forces fired without provocation.
“They took us by surprise,” he said by phone, over the sound of gunfire.
Both sides in the seven-week struggle claimed victories of sorts on Friday. Thousands of demonstrators gathered again in dozens of towns and cities, despite the government’s deployment of security and military forces from the Mediterranean coast to the steppe in southern Syria. But the crackdown seemed to have slowed the force of the protests, and even some of the government’s opponents acknowledged that crowds may have been smaller than on past Fridays.
“The protests can’t get the momentum to increase the numbers on the ground, as we saw in Egypt and Tunisia,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights advocate and visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington. “The collective punishment of cities, mass arrests and the tactics of snipers have created some fear.”
President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father, Hafez, in 2000, initially claimed that Syria was immune to the tumult sweeping the Arab world. When the uprising erupted in Dara’a, a poor town near the Jordanian border, he initially responded with a mix of crackdown and concessions that proved largely rhetorical. For the past two weeks, the government has relied almost entirely on force to crush dissent, and there appears to be a sense in official circles that the government has gained the upper hand.
Over the past week, opposition figures said, Butheina Shaaban, an adviser to Mr. Assad, has reached out to some dissidents. One of them, Michel Kilo, said he met with Ms. Shaaban on Thursday and insisted that a dialogue could begin only after an end to the crackdown, recognition of the right to protest and agreement on a political solution to the crisis.
“I didn’t go to hold dialogue,” he said. “I went to express my opinion.”
Other opposition figures dismissed the tentative outreach and pointed to the arrests of two government opponents — Riad al-Seif, a former member of Parliament ailing with prostate cancer who was jailed twice in 2002, and Mouaz al-Khatib, a prominent Muslim cleric. Mr. Khatib was arrested Thursday, and Mr. Seif on Friday, after attending a small protest in the capital, Damascus, outside the Hassan Mosque that was quickly dispersed.
“These are maneuvers,” said Burhan Ghalioun, a Syrian scholar and director of the Center for Contemporary Oriental Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. “They are maneuvering, and they are playing with the opposition to try to break its ranks.”
Obama administration officials say that while some figures in the Syrian leadership, Ms. Shaaban and Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa among them, seem to favor at least some reform, hard-liners in the leadership are ascendant. In the past two weeks, the military has been deployed in force to Dara’a, Baniyas on the Mediterranean coast and Rastan, a town near Homs. Thousands have been arrested, particularly in Dara’a and towns on the capital’s outskirts.
But officials say the ire of France and, in particular, Turkey, which had emerged as one of Syria’s closest allies, has worried the Syrian leadership. So has the threat of international action. On Friday, the European Union decided to impose a travel ban and a freeze of assets of 14 Syrian officials, though Mr. Assad was excluded.
“The government has been saying this will be over in two to three weeks,” an administration official said in Washington. “They seem to think they have control over the situation, that it’s dying down, but we don’t really understand why they think that.”
The toll on Friday paled before that of past weeks, especially April 22, when more than 100 people were killed as security forces opened fire on demonstrations across the country…..
- This is the link of the small documentary done by AFP in Deraa on Thursday. It is the French version which was released to most French channels such as France 24 and TV5. They will be releasing a similar video in english and arabic.
- Another video in Arabic about the Christians
- Al-Jazeera Video Syrian tanks enter ‘protest hub’ Baniyas
With the Western media focused on bin Laden, the situation in Syria has been deteriorating
Justin Elliott of Salon.com
While the U.S. media has been focused on Libya, the president’s birth certificate and Osama bin Laden, a dramatic and brutal showdown has been unfolding between the government of Syria and opposition protesters.
An estimated 500 to 600 civilians have been killed in the 50-day uprising, and forces of the Bashar al-Assad regime have repeatedly opened fire on protesters. Part of the reason for the lack of American media coverage is that Western reporters were expelled from the country early on, and most are now covering the situation from neighboring Lebanon.
For an update on the uprising and a take on the Obama administration’s Syria policy, I spoke to Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the proprietor of the well-respected blog Syria Comment.
Who makes up the opposition?
Well we know a certain sliver of the opposition well because there are a number of activists who have been supported by U.S. pro-democracy money for five years now. They’ve been working away developing websites and expertise on democratic transformation. They are very liberal, pro-American — everything that America likes. But we don’t know how big or important that group of liberals is. Civil society in Syria has been so severely restricted. Not as much as it had been in Iraq, but it’s not far from that scale. So we don’t know how powerful various parties would become if we take a lid off.
The strength of the opposition is that has no leadership, and therefore the leadership cannot be easily snuffed out. It is led by young activists in their 20s and early 30s who are determined and who have until very recently been able to keep the opposition focused on liberal slogans about freedom, unity, peace, anti-corruption, and regime change. They’ve shown great courage in the face of a very tough repression. But the great weakness of the opposition is that they have no leadership. There are no faces that people can identify with, and no personalities to reassure the silent majority that the future is going to be handled in a way that they would find acceptable.
Describe the new sanctions on Syria imposed by the Obama administration.
Well America already has several sets of sanctions. Sanctions because it is a terror-supporting state, according to the U.S. Primarily because it supports Hezbollah and Hamas. Sanctions placed by President Bush against people who interfere in Lebanon and people who are corrupt. And now Obama has added another lawyer, against the leaders of Syria’s security state, who are most directly responsible for clamping down on the protests. The effect of the sanctions overall has been to slow down the Syrian economy and to put the Syrians on a diet, to reduce their incomes. Sanctions scare away foreign investment. But the new sanctions so far are more symbolic than they are meaningful.
So has the administration had a consistent policy throughout this crisis?
The policy has been to show horror at the brutal treatment of the protesters, to denounce Syria’s actions, but not to do anything that would make it incumbent on the U.S. to intervene militarily as it did in Libya. There, Obama said that Gadhafi had to go. And once he said that, the pressure mounted quickly for the U.S. to do something. But Libya is 6 million people. Syria is 22 million. It is an ethnically and religiously divided society, like in Iraq. If the regime is toppled, it’s quite likely there would be a civil war. And if that happens, the calls for intervention will be very hard to resist.
There have been more and more criticisms from Republican leaders that the Obama administration has been too soft on Syria. Where is this coming from? Is this all about Israel?
It is largely about Israel. U.S. interest in Syria has almost always been a subset of the U.S.-Israel relationship. We have sanctions on Syria because it is part of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they are trying to get their occupied territory — the Golan Heights — back. So they look for allies in the fight against Israel, and this makes them our enemy.
You mentioned the courage the protesters have shown. The numbers of dead seem quite high. How bad has the crackdown been?
There’s been 500 and 600 dead. The Syrian government has shot at people. They haven’t let the demonstrations grow. If you adjust for population, in Bahrain, the government killed twice as many of its citizens. They were given a pass, their ambassador was invited to the royal wedding in London. That’s because America has oil interests in the Gulf and wants to please Saudi Arabia, and America doesn’t care as much about Shiite dead because it doesn’t like Iran.
Have the demonstrations been entirely non-violent?
No. There have been about 80 Syrian soldiers that have been shot. The opposition claims that Syrian soldiers were shot by other government forces. But this has never been proven and is unlikely. The government is saying they are being shot by armed elements — either Salafists or Al Qaeda-type people, or just those that want to destabilize Syria. That argument wins sympathy from many Syrians. But many others want to see revolution. The country is split down the middle, along religious lines — like Iraq was.
Which side has the momentum right now?
The state. The chances are quite high that the Syrian government will be able to beat back the opposition because the government has a monopoly of power. The army and the security forces have remained loyal to the president. They have not split as they did in Libya. They have not turned on the president as they did in Egypt.
But if the regime does collapse, the state institutions will collapse, as they did in Iraq. Syria is a one-party state, which is the Baath Party. If the opposition takes over the government, the Baath Party will be purged. The state institutions like the military, the intelligence forces, and the Republican Guard will all be disbanded and perhaps some of the leadership will be tried. One can expect close to 2 million people losing their jobs or being affected directly by this. They’re going to fight to keep their privileges and their position, just as the Sunnis in Iraq fought. This would turn into a sectarian war. The slogans of freedom, although important, conceal a sectarian split in the country.
That scenario seems grim. Is there a possible positive outcome and what would it look like?
There is a possible positive outcome, which is that Bashar al-Assad remains in power and yet carries out deep reforms. That’s what a number of people are hoping for, that he will become humble and realize that in order to bring peace to Syria he’s going to have to enact deep reforms.
But based on what he’s doing right now, it would seem like things are going in the opposition direction.
Is This the End of the Assad Dynasty?
By Patrick SealeGreat clamour for change has arisen in more than a dozen Syrian cities in recent weeks. Has the time come for President Bashar al-Assad to give way to pressure from the street and perhaps even to bow out altogether? Asks Patrick Seale.
….The difficult and perilous task Bashar now faces is nothing less than the profound restructuring — under great popular pressure — of a fossilised system of governance inherited from his father, but which is no longer appropriate to the modern age, and no longer tolerated by the bulk of the population. Like other Arabs, Syrians want real political freedoms, the release of political prisoners, an independent judiciary, the punishment of corrupt bigwigs, a free press, a new law on political parties allowing for genuine pluralism (and the cancellation of article 8 of the constitution which enshrines the Ba’ath Party as “the leader of state and society”), and an end, once and for all, to arbitrary arrest, police brutality and torture.
Can Bashar meet these demands? Does he have the will and ability to do so? Can he hope to prevail over the entrenched interests of his extended family, of his intelligence and army chiefs, of powerful figures in his Alawite community, of rich Sunni merchants of Damascus traditionally allied to the Assad family, and of the small but powerful “new bourgeoisie,” made rich by the transition from a state-controlled to a market-oriented economy, over which he has himself presided in the past decade? All these disparate forces want no change in a system which has brought them privilege and wealth. Above all, can Bashar change the brutal methods of his police and security forces? Could anyone in just a few weeks hope to change habits of repression ingrained over half a century, and indeed far longer? (For autocracy is not an Assad invention.)
The Bashar years
Until the outbreak of the crisis, Bashar al-Assad had little or nothing of the menacing pose of a traditional Arab dictator. His manner was modest and, at 45, he looked astonishingly young. His tall willowy frame has none of the robustness of a fighter, while his gaze, questioning and often perplexed, has none of the certainties of a man born to power. He was a young doctor studying ophthalmology in London when the accidental death in 1994 of his elder brother, Basil, an altogether tougher character who was being groomed for the succession, propelled him somewhat reluctantly onto the political scene.
The country he came to rule in 2000 seemed backward in an increasingly globalised and technologically advanced world. His first reforms were therefore financial and commercial. Mobile phones and the internet were introduced. Private schools and universities proliferated. In 2004 private banks and insurance companies were allowed to operate for the first time, and a stock exchange was opened in March 2009. A political and economic alliance was forged with Turkey (and visas abolished), which allowed trade to grow along that border, benefiting Aleppo. The Old City of Damascus was revitalised, ancient courtyard houses restored and hotels and restaurants opened to cater for the growing number of tourists. Before the crisis erupted, Syria was negotiating to join the World Trade Organisation and conclude an association agreement with the European Union.
But Bashar’s years in power seem to have hardened him. He developed a taste for control — control over the media, over the university, over the economy (through cronies such as his exorbitantly rich cousin Rami Makhlouf), control over society at large. Free expression is not allowed. Political decision-making is restricted to a tight circle around the president and security services. Like his father, Bashar clearly does not like to be pushed around or to seem to yield to pressure. Even so, many Syrians still support him in the belief that, as an educated, modern and secular ruler, he is better placed than most to bring about necessary change.
At the time of writing, Bashar still seems to have a chance, if a slim one, of stabilising the situation and perhaps earning a further spell in power — but only if he calls a halt to the killing of protesters and takes the lead of the reform movement, and in effect carries out a silent coup against the hardliners.
But it may well be too late for that. Indeed, Bashar may already have lost authority to men like his brother, Maher al-Assad, commander of the regime’s Republican Guard, who seems to advocate crushing the protests by force. If the army and the security services remain loyal, it will be difficult for the opposition to unseat the regime. But there have been ominous rumours of army defections as well as reports that some members of the Ba’ath Party have resigned…..
some Islamists still dream of revenge, while minorities such as the Alawites fear that if the regime were to fall, they would be massacred in turn. Emerging from underground, the Muslim Brothers have now called on the people to join the protests. The cry for freedom risks being drowned by sectarian strife.
Such has been Bashar al-Assad’s harsh apprenticeship. He has had to surmount a series of regime-threatening crises much like those his father confronted in his time. Both Assads felt some satisfaction at managing to survive them and thus provide Syria with a measure of stability and security, especially compared with Iraq and Lebanon. There was, however, a price to pay. Having to live and survive in a hostile environment inevitably conferred great powers on the security services, guardians of the regime — to the increasing resentment of ordinary Syrians. A dialogue of the deaf ensued. The Assads’ intense preoccupation with external crises led them to neglect the internal scene. Who would need political freedoms, they no doubt thought, if given the benefits of security and stability? As the regime’s official daily newspaper Tishrin wrote on 25 April: “The most sublime form of freedom is the security of the nation.”
The recent explosion of popular anger has evidently taken Bashar by surprise, as it did other Arab autocrats. He has had to wrench his attention away from the perils and excitements of foreign policy to urgent challenges at home. To devise and implement far-reaching domestic reforms, as the present situation urgently demands, will require a radical change of focus. It will not be easy, and a favourable outcome is far from certain. Bashar now faces an internal threat to his regime at least as dangerous as any of the external threats he and his father confronted so successfully.
Yes, it does seem that way. And in order to enforce his control, he’s going to resort to greater sectarian divide-and-rule, which will ultimately weaken Syria and eliminate the possibility of deep reforms. So this looks like a lose-lose situation.