Posted by Joshua on Monday, May 2nd, 2011
Is Syria really in the throws of a Jasmine revolution?
Produced by Shevonne Hunt, for Yhe Wire, a current affairs show in Australia.
There are more reports of the brutal crack down of protesters in the southern city of Dera’a… but with no independent media allowed in to the country… do we really understand what is happening in Syria? Featured in story: Dr Fiona Hill, anthropologist and long time visitor to Syria and Joshua Landis- Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Syria protesters given surrender ultimatum
Agence France-Presse, Damascus, May 02, 2011
The authorities in Syria on Monday set a deadline of 15 days for people who had committed “unlawful acts” to give themselves up, as a wave of arrests was reported across the country.
The ultimatum came as activists planned fresh anti-government demonstrations following the d
eaths of dozens of people in weekend protests.
In a statement, the interior ministry told “citizens who have participated in or committed unlawful acts such as bearing arms, attacking security or spreading lies to surrender by May 15 and hand their weapons in to the competent authorities.”
It also called on Syrians to “supply information about saboteurs, terrorists and arms caches… they will be spared any subsequent legal consequences.”
A military spokesman on Monday announced the arrest of 499 people in the southern flashpoint town of Daraa, a week after thousands of troops backed by tanks swooped on the town to crush protests.
The spokesman also announced the deaths of two members of the security forces “as well as 10 terrorists.” Eight soldiers were wounded and five gunmen waiting in ambush were arrested, the military added.
According to the opposition Syrian Revolution 2011 website, security forces on Monday at dawn also entered the Kafar Nubbol area, 320 kilometres (200 miles) north of Damascus, and took over houses and arrested 26 people.
The site urged Syrians across the country to mobilise every day at noon in solidarity with Daraa and all “besieged towns.”
“We say to this regime: ‘The court of the people will judge you’,” it said.
‘Doomsday scenario’ if Syria fails
By Liz Sly, Sunday, May , Washington Post
BEIRUT — The toppling of the presidents in Tunisia and Egypt precipitated a tumult of revolutionary fervor that promises to transform the Middle East, but the potential collapse of the Syrian regime could wreak havoc of a very different kind.
In Syria, the fall of President Bashar al-Assad would unleash a cataclysm of chaos, sectarian strife and extremism that spreads far beyond its borders, threatening not only the entrenched rulers already battling to hold at bay a clamor for democratic change but also the entire balance of power in the volatile region, analysts and experts say.
With Syria’s minority Shiite Alawite government overseeing a majority Sunni population, its strategic location and its web of alliances including the radical Hamas and Hezbollah movements, regime change could look a lot more like it did in Iraq than in Egypt — and the ramifications could prove even more profound.
“If the regime collapses you will have civil war and it will spread throughout the region,” engulfing Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and beyond, said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “A collapse of the Syrian regime is a doomsday scenario for the entire Middle East.”
Many believe that is why the international community, including the United States, has offered such a tempered response to the bloodshed in Syria, the latest Arab country to be swept up in the unrest roiling the region. NATO warplanes are bombing Libya to protect civilians there, but there have been no calls even for Assad to step aside, despite an increasingly violent crackdown by the Syrian military in which at least 550 people have died. On Sunday, hundreds of people were detained as the military swept through towns and villages raiding homes in search of those who participated in recent protests, human rights groups said.
Analyst Rami Khouri describes Syria as the Middle East equivalent of a bank that’s too big to be allowed to fail. “The spillover effect would be too horrible to contemplate,” he wrote in a commentary in Beirut’s Daily Star.
“The specter of sectarian-based chaos within a post-Assad Syria that could spread to other parts of the Middle East is frightening to many people.”
Part of the problem is that so little is known about what would come next should Assad be ousted. Egypt and Tunisia took great leaps into uncertainty when their regimes fell, but in each case the army, a known quantity, asserted its independence and seized power to oversee the transition.
In Syria, the army is so tightly bound to Assad’s Alawite clan that the fall of the regime would almost certainly lead to its disintegration, setting the stage for an Iraq-style implosion in which the state collapses, a majority seeks to exact revenge on a minority and regional powers pile in to assert their own interests, said Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, who writes the blog Syria Comment.
“Syria is the cockpit of the Middle East, and a struggle for control of Syria would be ignited,” he said.
Implications for Iraq
It is the specter of Iraq, where U.S. troops are preparing to withdraw by the end of the year, that most haunts the Obama administration as it seeks to balance demands for a firmer response to the escalating bloodshed with America’s strategic interests, analysts say.
Syria shares a long desert border with Iraq that was for many years the chief transit point for Islamic extremists seeking to join the Sunni insurgency. Only recently, officials say, had the United States noted genuine efforts on the part of the Syrians to curtail the traffic, prompting the United States to return an ambassador to Syria in January for the first time since 2005.
“For the Obama administration, the last thing they want, just at the time they’re withdrawing from Iraq, is a destabilized Syria that would lead to open season for jihadis to cross the border into Iraq,” said David Lesch, professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in Texas.
Iraq’s own Shiite government also views with alarm the upheaval across the border, mindful that the collapse of Syria’s Shiite minority government would almost certainly herald the rise of a Sunni state on its doorstep, and perhaps renewed support for Sunni insurgents still resisting the Shiite ascendancy in Baghdad.
But Iraq is by no means the only country in the region looking askance at the Syrian upheaval. Israel has expressed misgivings about the tumult threatening its chief foe, which has reliably not attempted to recover by force the occupied Golan Heights for nearly four decades — something that could change if a populist Syrian government emerged.
Neighboring Lebanon has its own Sunni-Shiite divide that has long been delineated by pro- and anti-Syrian camps. They have fought one another on many occasions in the recent past, and it is inconceivable that Syria’s troubles would not spill over the border into Lebanon, Khashan said.
To the north, Turkey is concerned about the potential aspirations of Syria’s Kurds, who could seek to assert their identity and claims to statehood as Iraq’s Kurds did after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Iran has relied on its three-decade-old alliance with Syria to project its influence into the Arab world, and has no wish to see the country controlled by Sunnis. It would almost certainly intervene to support its Alawite allies, just as it intervened in Iraq to help Shiites there. The Obama administration has already accused Iran of helping Damascus repress the revolt.
And the Persian Gulf states, though long on frosty terms with Damascus, also are nervous about the prospect of sectarian conflict, which could leach into Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. For Saudi Arabia, there is also the worry that the assertion of Sunni power in Syria could inspire restive domestic Sunni radicals to intensify their opposition to the monarchy.
Yet little is known about who the opposition in Syria is, or who might take over should the regime fall — offering another reason that governments have been so hesitant to call for Assad’s departure.
The authorities have denied entry to the news media, and even before this latest unrest, visas were issued sparingly to journalists and academics, making it hard to know exactly who is behind the sudden, and for many unexpected, outpouring of dissent.
Syria has sought to portray its opponents as armed Islamic extremists intent on sowing sectarian strife, and indeed, the last time there was significant domestic unrest in the country was in 1982, when the Syrian army ruthlessly crushed an insurrection by armed members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the town of Hama, killing between 10,000 and 40,000 people.
Syrian activists bristle at the suggestion that their movement is dominated by Islamists, and say their revolution is no different from the one in Egypt, in which ordinary people spontaneously took to the streets to vent their frustrations with corruption, nepotism and the ruthlessness of the security forces.
“I feel disgusted by how the superpowers make these calculations based on their own interests, while my own people are dying on the streets,” said Mohammed Ali Atassi, a prominent journalist and filmmaker currently in Beirut.
“The Syrians will get their freedom, and we will decide, and the Americans and Europeans will have to accept our choice,” he said. “But in any case, democratically elected governments always go for a peaceful and rational foreign policy.”
Some analysts say there is indeed no reason to fear a transition in Syria, which has in any case long been blamed by the West for much of the instability plaguing the region. Predictions of the chaos that would ensue if the regime in Damascus were to fall “are way overexaggerated,” said Riad Kahwaji of the Dubai-based Institute for Gulf and Near East Military Analysis.
Syria has been implicated in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, hosts the remnants of Hussein’s Baath Party facilitating the insurgency in Iraq, and enables Iran to ship weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah through its territory. A new regime could prove far more moderate, Kahwaji said.
Yet Syria’s long history as the master manipulator of the Middle East may be another reason that the world is reluctant to alienate Assad. With its long record of sponsoring multiple, shadowy extremist groups in pursuit of foreign policy goals, the Syrian regime is also in a position to unleash considerable chaos across the region should it feel unduly threatened, analysts say.
And that, according to Khashan, the American University of Beirut professor, makes it unlikely the Syrian regime will fall. “Because, to tell the truth, no one wants it to fall, including Israel, the U.S. and the gulf states,” he said.
Arab leaders pressed to break silence on Syria
By Roula Khalaf in LondonPublished: May 1 2011 20:18
Pressure is mounting on Arab governments to take a stance against Syria’s brutal crackdown of the popular uprising at a time when western states are adopting initial sanctions to isolate the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The Arab League played an instrumental role in facilitating the international military intervention in Libya, with its call for a no-fly zone. But while the US targets figures in the regime with sanctions and the European Union prepares similar measures, the League has issued only a general statement saying peaceful protesters in Arab states deserved “support, not bullets”….. “The silence is embarrassing,” admits one senior official in the region.
When Syrian army tanks stormed the southern town of Daraa last week, a military spokesman explained that the assault targeted “extremist terrorist groups.” The justification fell in line with the media campaign propagated by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime ever since countrywide protests began more than a month ago: behind the demonstrations are jihadists.
The reality is anything but. In fact, the popular uprising has followed on the wider revolt that has rocked the Middle East since January. In Syria, too, it has erupted, in large part spontaneously. What little coordination that has happened has come from human-rights activists and young, Internet-savvy professionals taking their cues from the astonishingly effective model on display in Egypt. The human face of it all, as evidenced by the left-leaning intellectuals and spokespersons talking to the outside world, has been secular and democratic. If there was indeed a jihadist element active in all this—as the regime claims—any role it has played has been nothing more than marginal. Even the former long-serving leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali al-Bayanouni, said last week in a television interview with Alhurra that “none of the opposition groups can claim ownership of this youthful revolution.”
That is hardly the message Assad’s Damascus wants the fence-sitters to see. His regime would like to face these protests with the same coalition—urban Sunni bourgeoisie, Christians, and heterodox Muslim sects—that his father cobbled together almost 30 years ago to face down a threatening Islamic fundamentalist insurgency. That showdown culminated with the smashing of the central city of Hama during a three-week battle in February 1982, leaving tens of thousands killed. Hafez Assad’s triumph brought on nearly three decades of stability.
It is ironic that the regime has worked assiduously to erase the battle over Hama from the country’s collective memory, as it would like nothing more than what happened there to be remembered now. Today, Bashar al-Assad would like to go to battle against the very same fundamentalist bogeymen his father fought back in the 1980s. Such a specter would sufficiently scare vested interests and confessional groups within the country, bringing them around to his side. And if the enemy were just an ideological shade away from Al Qaeda, the West would not intervene, but instead would let Damascus do its dirty work.
That’s not to say there aren’t Syrian jihadists. To the contrary, actually. In the years following Hama, successive generations of Syrian fundamentalists joined the jihad; they just did so abroad. Abu Musab al-Suri became Al Qaeda’s chief tactical theorist, bouncing around the globe before he was arrested in Pakistan. The prolific London-based writer Abu Baseer al-Tartousi turned out to be one of Al Qaeda’s leading ideologues. Many young Syrians joined Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, helping him rise to infamous heights—some even became Zarqawi’s top aides. There’s no doubt much of this happened with the connivance of Syrian authorities, which allowed jihadists to wreak havoc in places where their nihilism converged with the regime’s own interests in fomenting mayhem: radical Syrians abroad were able to stick a wrench in Iraqi and Lebanese affairs when it saw fit.
Damascus, meanwhile, figured the risk of blowback was minimal, or, at worst, manageable. So far it has been. Save for the attack on the U.S. Embassy in September 2006 and a car bomb at a security checkpoint two years later, news from Syria has been devoid of any jihadist-inspired headlines.
What’s most important, though, is that by invoking the threat of jihadists as cover for his crackdown on Arab Spring protesters, Assad risks drawing jihadists back into his country. Further brutality on demonstrators may look, on television screens in the West, like just another Arab strongman squashing dissent. But to militant expatriates, the scene is different: officers from the minority Alawite Shia sect beating down on a Sunni majority. The perception will drive anti-Shia jihadists back to Syria. Meanwhile, the regime will work to draw frightened minorities and urban Sunni merchants into its fold. Sectarianism, historically rife in Syria and known to anyone who has experienced life under the Assads, is the fast-burning fuel that could quickly spark what would surely be a vicious civil war.
The jihadists, should they return, would come with a fury. In past years, security sweeps have kept control over most Islamic fundamentalists who had come home to roost. Take the shadowy outfit that called itself by the same name that al-Zarqawi had adopted for himself at the onset of his jihad. It made two audio releases a few months apart in 2007 laden with threats and grandiose visions. But it couldn’t galvanize followers (perhaps there weren’t enough to be rallied in the first place). In the end it was all smoke, no fire.
But a new crop of militants has been battle-hardened by Iraq. And the arid lands of western Iraq, abutting the Syrian border, could quickly become a Waziristan-like haven from which they could restock munitions, raise funds, and train new recruits. Sunni Iraq has ejected Al Qaeda but will likely sympathize with these Syrian insurgents for sectarian and cultural reasons. After all, the people on either side of the border of the Euphrates Valley, and farther north toward the lands west of Mosul, are indistinguishable by accent, tribal affiliation, and sect.
According to a well-placed Iraqi security source, the man who seems poised to lead a potential jihad in Syria—the 43-year-old Abdel-Hakim Ali Ashayish al-Ugaili—is a native of the Syrian town of Dayr az Zawr, which lies a short drive from Iraq’s Anbar province. He is a veteran of Chechnya, Bosnia, and a bunch of other jihadist hotspots. For the last few years he’s been working between Syria and Baghdad.
These ties matter. Daraa lies on the northwestern rim of the Hawran plain, mirrored by the lands of northern Jordan in the southeast. It was in that corner of Jordan that al-Zarqawi was born and reared in a cultural ecosystem that is itself indistinguishable from Daraa’s.
What happens in Syria won’t be easily confined to its own borders. The spillover effect would mean that Jordan, where a shaky monarchy is trying to stay a step ahead of popular demonstrations, would be pulled into the chaos. Another flash point would be the Sunni enclaves in Lebanon that border Syria. Lebanon has been simmering with Sunni-Shia tensions for a while, and in the last few years Sunnis and Alawites have sporadically clashed in the north with light arms and mortar barrages. All more than enough for serious concern.
Assad has called out the jihadists as his enemy of choice. The rhetoric may not represent reality, but the jihadists would like nothing more than to oblige. Strategically, Syria would be an ideal cauldron in which militants could fan the flames of a jihad that is dying out in Iraq and Afghanistan. What Damascus doesn’t realize is that the rougher the repression on the Arab Spring, the more it is instigating a jihadist campaign of violent vengeance. It has a real chance at success. And the West, despite its reluctance, will then have to contend with multiple Fallujahs sprouting within striking distance of the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
Kazimi is the author of Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy (Hoover Press).
From an Aleppine Reader:
My dad just traveled back to Turkey from Aleppo this AM. Here are his high level observation:
– Arab media is sensationalizing the event so much. He said during the “Friday of anger”, he stayed home fearing turmoil, but there was sooooo little problems in Halep compared to what the media reported the next day.
– His tribal business partners who are from Halep could care less about who is in power. They want the economy to prosper. He deals with three business partners who have ~8-10 kids each. So economy is all what they care about.
– He said Daraa is not representative of what is happening in Syria and that God helps us all if Deraa is representing the Syrians view point.
– the public opinion in Turkey is with a reformist Assad. They want him in power but not as is.
– He believes that Assad has no choice but to reform and he thinks it is still possible. (I am surprised with his point of view because dad was very hawkish on this issue).
The people our dad deals with are the microcosm of the Aleppo Sunni business establishment. 6 brothers own a whole block of stores in the heart of the city’s commerce hub.
Anatomy of a failed public sector: Syrian Tire Company
A friend of mine imports tires from Turkey to Syria because tires made in Syria are inferior in quality and much too expensive. They are all made by a government subsidized and controlled company. He writes: “It has lost close to syp one billion. How the country can keep pouring good money after bad into this industry is astonishing. Rather than an urgent debate, the horror show continues. Read this article in Arabic in Watan.”
Qunfuz writes in the comment section:
Those worrying about sectarian civil war should oppose this regime as strongly as they can. The unleashing of the Alawi shabeeha, the massacres of the people, the Israeli-style house demolitions, the torture and mass arrests, the non-stop lies about Salafis – these will make sectarian war inevitable. The only chance to stop it is for these gangsters to be removed urgently. If the people can organise politically, openly, around practical issues, the sectarian poison can be treated. Certain members of the Syrian minorities are looking at Syrian Sunnis in the way Iraqi Sunnis looked at Iraqi Shia. Those people on this site and elsewhere justifying and openly encouraging the murder of innocent, freedom-loving Sunnis should examine themselves.
It’s interesting to see the defences of the regime and the debunking of opposition claims. I suppose not many other sites are doing it. But it’s very one sided indeed. For news about the crimes this traitorous regime is committing, one has to look elsewhere.
Robert Fisk should have retired years ago, but these interviews with refugees driven from Tell Kalakh are good.
Quote: “Even before the shooting started on Wednesday, the military and the plain-clothes gunmen spent some time separating Sunni Muslims from the Alawi inhabitants, telling the latter to stay in their houses – as good a way of starting a local civil war as you could find in Syria.”