Posted by Joshua on Sunday, May 22nd, 2011
One of the underlying causes for conflict in Syrian society is the enormous power held by al-Assad and others in his minority Alawite religious community – a branch of Shiite Islam, comprising only 12 percent of the population. The 74 percent of the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria complain bitterly of deep-rooted discrimination. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris Spoke with Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and editor of the online newsletter Syria Comment. Landis discusses the religious divisions in Syria which present a major obstacle to ending the violence and negotiating political and economic reforms.
From the streets of Syria, a British student reports on the propaganda campaign waged by the government to convince people that all is OK and that the West is to blame—and it’s working.
Tribal Justice Blamed for Deaths of 120 Syrian police and soldiers
by Phil Sands in The National, May 17, 2011
In the two months since an anti-government uprising began in Syria, more than 120 police officers and soldiers have been killed, authorities say.
If that number is correct, then the Syrian government has lost as many members of its security forces since March as the US military has lost in Afghanistan since the start of the year – 127 killed in action – and more than the British army has lost in any single year during the decade-long Afghan war.
Government officials argue that the scale of the violence is clear evidence that Syria is facing an insurgency by Islamist terrorists.
Instead, the reality may be far more mundane – especially in the tribal regions of the country where many of the attacks against government forces appear to have taken place.
Rather than a conspiracy of Islamist fundamentalists supplied with weapons and cash by Syria’s enemies, tribe members and other residents of these areas say many of those shooting at the security services are motivated by traditions of tribal justice and dignity, self-defence, a sense of powerlessness and years of pent-up anger and frustration.
For all its hallmarks as a modern secular state, Syria remains a complex mosaic of tribes, sects and powerful extended families. Loyalty to clan often supersedes allegiance to country and tribal justice regularly supplants civil law.
Rural Syria, where this hierarchy of loyalties is most prevalent, is home to most of the country’s 22 million people. Nevertheless, large-scale migration means tribal influences have reached into the teeming working-class suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and other major cities.
This clash of tribal identity with state authority is woven into the violence that has swept the country since protests began two months ago this week. The absence of any credible prosecution of those responsible for excessive violence against unarmed protesters has given way to more traditional ways of holding people to account.
“If you kill someone from a tribe and the government doesn’t deliver justice, then the tribe will see justice is done in its own way, which means blood-for-blood,” a member of one of Syria’s major clans said.
“My people believe in revenge. If one of the tribe is shot by a member of the security services and the killer is not properly punished by the government, then another security man will be killed to settle the score. It’s simple: an eye for an eye.”
That reaction to what many viewed as official impunity took root on March 18 during the first rally in Deraa, the crucible of the uprising, when four people were shot dead as they demanded the release of 15 local schoolchildren who had been arrested and abused by the security forces for writing political graffiti on a wall.
The powerful tribal families in the southern Houran region, which has Deraa as its capital, asked the authorities to discipline security personnel involved in killings, particularly the senior officers who gave orders to open fire on unarmed protesters during the first demonstration.
Seeking to Disrupt Protesters, Syria Cracks Down on Social Media
By JENNIFER PRESTON, May 22, 2011, New York Times
The Syrian government is cracking down on protesters’ use of social media and the Internet to promote their rebellion just three months after allowing citizens to have open access to Facebook and YouTube, according to Syrian activists and digital privacy experts.
Security officials are moving on multiple fronts — demanding dissidents turn over their Facebook passwords and switching off the 3G mobile network at times, sharply limiting the ability of dissidents to upload videos of protests to YouTube, according to several activists in Syria. And supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, calling themselves the Syrian Electronic Army, are using the same tools to try to discredit dissidents. ….
There are about 580,000 Facebook users in Syria, a 105 percent increase since the government lifted its four-year ban on Feb. 9, according to Fadi Salem, director of the Governance and Innovation Program at the Dubai School of Government.
Though Syrian officials sought to portray the decision as a sign of openness, human right advocates warned that the government could use Facebook to closely monitor regime criticism and ferret out dissidents as nearby countries erupted in revolt.
A man in his 20s living in Syria said that the police demanded his Facebook password late last month after arresting him where he worked and taking his laptop. “I told him, at first, I didn’t have a Facebook account, but he told me, after he punched me in the face, that he knew I had one because they were watching my ‘bad comments’ on it,” he said. “I knew then that they were monitoring me.”…
For now, activists in Syria said they would not know whether using Facebook had helped or hurt them until the revolt came to an end…. “It may be effective if the regime that you are campaigning against is insufficiently ruthless or powerful. If you win quickly, Facebook is the right tool to use. If not, it becomes much more dangerous.”
Wikileaks: US Cable: “Saudi Arabia & UAE sent $100 Million annually to fund ‘Islamic extremists'” Cable referenced: # 178082.
KARACHI: A US official in a cable sent to the State Department stated that “financial support estimated at nearly 100 million USD annually was making its way to Deobandi and Ahl-i-Hadith clerics in south Punjab from organisations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ostensibly with the direct support of those governments.” The cable sent in November 2008 by Bryan Hunt, the then Principal Officer at the US Consulate in Lahore, was based on information from discussions with local government and non-governmental sources during his trips to the cities of Multan and Bahawalpur… …
Brotherhood Raises Syria Profile
Islamist Group Tries to Organize Opposition to Assad Regime, as Protests Waver
By NOUR MALAS
Syrian families fleeing violence in their country arrived in Wadi Khaled, in northern Lebanon, near the Syrian border Monday.
The exiled Muslim Brotherhood of Syria, the only antiretime group to ever seriously challenge the Assad government, said it was trying to take a larger role in organizing the disparate opposition as Syria’s street protests appear to wane.
The move from the banned and exiled group could capitalize on an apparent deadlock between protesters and President Bashar al-Assad’s government, as opposition activists fail to coalesce into a solid front.
Despite years of shifting alliances and a recent internal struggle for leadership, the Syria Brotherhood’s role as one of the oldest organized antigovernment movements could prove effective amid the power void of Syria’s opposition.
Israel fortifies borders and Jerusalem after protests on Nakba Day, killing 15. Video courtesy of Reuters.
“We have a desire to coordinate the position of the opposition,” said Zuhair Salim, a spokesman for Syria’s Brotherhood based in London, which is loosely affiliated with other Arab Muslim Brotherhood movements. “We are supporters, and not creators. The voice of the street is a spokesperson for itself.”
His comments reflect a cautious position calibrated to avoid claiming leadership of a protest movement Mr. Assad’s government has characterized as run by armed, extremist Islamist groups. The Brotherhood poses a particular problem for some of the antiregime activists trying to forge secular coalitions more in line with the street movement.
Mr. Salim has become increasingly vocal since the Brotherhood in late April backed the protest movement, appearing on Arabic-language television programs to support what the group has called a “peaceful, popular intifada,” or resistance…….
….Last summer, Muhammad Riad al-Shakfa succeeded Ali Bayanouni as the Syrian Brotherhood’s leader, raising concerns that gains made under Mr. Bayanouni to shift the movement to the center would be reversed. The party under Mr. Shakfa, seen as taking a harder line, found itself “sitting on the sidelines of history” as the Arab Spring swept into Syria, one opposition member described. “It found a chance to reinvent itself in the street movement,” the person said.Mr. Shafka has gathered a group of younger Turkey-based activists that are now trying to help activists inside Syria to coordinate, people close to the party said.
Mr. Salim said the group has engaged in talks with a group of activists—minus a handful of figures who the Brotherhood had broke alliances with in the past— who have tried, but failed, for two months to form a broad enough coalition to represent Syria’s opposition abroad.
“Our efforts are ongoing and we hope that in no more than a month you will hear of an organized front,” he said.
The Brotherhood continues to communicate, indirectly, with members of its earlier alliance, the Damascus Declaration, including veteran dissident Michel Kilo, who met with Assad advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, last week. But Syria’s opposition has rejected outreach attempts by the government, calling any initiative including the “national dialogue,” a nonstarter before tanks withdraw from the street and security forces stop shooting protesters.
The Brotherhood would consider dialogue with the Assad government, under certain conditions, if the violence against protesters were to stop, Mr. Salim said.
Syria’s protests have been largely free of Islamist overtones. Protesters gather in public squares outside of mosques on Fridays, the day of the Islamic prayer. But over recent years, Islam has grown its profile in Syrian society, even under Mr. Assad’s staunchly secular rule. Mr. Salim said the group is in touch with religious leaders, mosque imams, and their students in and outside Syria.
“Religion is the most important aspect in my life,” said one conservative, Sunni landowner in Damascus. “But we do not like Salafism—we all want to live in a moderate community in peace,” he said, addressing the government line that the hard-line Islamist movement has stoked the protests.
….Failed alliances, including abandoning in 2009 a coalition with former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam after he turned against the regime and brief overtures to the regime itself cast doubt over the Brotherhood’s ability to command leadership of even the anti-regime movement abroad.
“Those 30 years destroyed their organization, and they lost their legitimacy because they changed positions so much without explanation over the past five years,” said Burhan Ghalioun, an opposition member who is a scholar of contemporary oriental studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.
But the longer the protesters’ stalemate with tanks and troops stretches out, the more appealing the group’s organizational advantage will likely appear.
“People on the street are getting tired, they’re running out of resources, and they don’t have that much experience,” said one protest coordinator outside Syria. “They recognize, and we have to recognize, that the Brothers are better organized and better funded.”
The Brotherhood, in the meantime, will continue to walk a cautious line. “The plan for now is, we say we are in cohesion with the protesters, and that means we will monitor the movement of the Syrian street,” Mr. Salim said. “We’re not in a position to approach them with something that they can’t take on, and yet we can’t abandon them so they feel they’re on their own.”
….The envoy suggested that the upcoming elections in Turkey might have impacted Turkey’s attitude on the uprisings in Syria, which turned from support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at first to criticism of the regime’s bloody crackdown on protesters.
“We understand there has been a change [in Turkey’s approach to the Syrian turmoil] mainly for some local considerations. The elections are a key factor and it is putting everybody in an awkward position,” he said…..
“For us, the Muslim Brotherhood is like the PKK is for Turkey,” he said, referring to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. “The Muslim Brotherhood has been attacking the army. You have to understand that sensitivity.”
Kabalan said the political wing of Muslim Brotherhood had been engaged in dialogue with the Syrian government, but added that he was talking about the military wing of the group.
Hani Abou al-Nasser rolls his eyes, shrugs and lets out a worried sigh as he gestures toward his empty store in the old souk of Damascus. “I haven’t made a penny in four days,” laments the 64-year-old. “There is no work. The tourists are gone.” His …
Growing Calls For Assad Dialogue With Syrian Protesters 2011-05-22, WASHINGTON (AFP)–
Jordan’s King Abdullah II urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday to reach out to protesters amid a brutal crackdown by the Syrian government that has killed at least 900 people. His call was echoed by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, an Egyptian presidential candidate, who called on Assad to accelerate socioeconomic and political reforms, as well as provide more freedoms and set new elections. “To turn things around and bring calm and stability, dialogue, national reconciliation, outreach is the only way that you can do so,” Abdullah II told ABC television’s “This Week” in noting that Assad has yet to bring all parties to the table to reach a peaceful solution. “I think Bashar needs to reach out to the people and get people around the table,” the Jordanian monarch added, noting his own father, the late King Hussein, had advised him to “keep as close to the people as possible.” Western-educated Assad, once seen as a reformist, should “accelerate, do the reform, quickly, quickly,” Moussa warned……
‘Damascus Hailstorm’ by Layla
There were many heated discussions flying about in Syria during my recent visit there. One expressed the most vehement support of the President and the bloody crackdown on the perceived ‘ignorant’ and ‘treacherous’ protestors. Whilst not a universally held view, it appears to be held by much of the country’s moneyed and empowered.
As is always the case in a potential uprising, it quickly becomes a fight for power and those for and against the current rules become demarcated. Recent demands for political freedom from a regime that has wrapped itself like tree around the spine of the country for forty years have been resolutely resisted. This is largely because the Baathist trunk carries many branches on which sit the army, an enormous security apparatus, the rich elite, and the ruling Assad family. This tree does not intend to lose any leaves this spring.
As the situation develops ominously and with increasing isolationism, everyone is watching and waiting to see if Syria will witness a mass uprising or mass repression. The course of events thus far suggests further oppression looms.
However, in marked contrast to the other towns and cities, the centre of the capital, Damascus, remains relatively calm and unaffected. After one particularly bloody day with protestors there were rumours of a large Damascus protest but instead that day witnessed a torrent of hailstones the size of cherries gushing out of the skies. Perhaps this ‘Damascus Hailstorm’ foreshadowed more foreboding prospects than the sought-after ‘Damascus Spring’.
Syria’s state TV continues to report of ‘armed gangs’ and ‘infiltrators’ using violence against security forces. Though wrought with the stench of propaganda, a surprising number of Syrians believe what they hear. This, as it was undoubtedly intended to, has weakened support for protesters, viewed by some with anger or mistrust.
Additionally, some middle class moderates say that Syrian society is not ready for big change and that there is no credible and strong alternative to the current President. Syria is surrounded by instability and threat – intransigent Israel; post-war Iraq; factitious Lebanon, and the American ‘enemy’ Iran. Significant political reform would be both a blessing and a curse for many on the international stage, but I believe it has the even greater possibility of bettering Syria if the right players got behind it.
In addition, Syria’s middle-classes however do not believe in the possibility of an alternative reality. Too often have I heard the pro-regime defence of “we are different here”, “our mentality is too backward to absorb democracy” and “we do not understand freedom”. While the experience of neighbouring Iraq and its process of ‘democratisation’ are enough to worry Syrians, the irony is that a lot of these same doubters are examples of the educated, travelled and well-read Syrians the country needs to be able to take it into a more developed and universally positive era. However, they too need a coherent, planned and safe rallying point.
These ‘moderates’ may feel sympathetic towards the protestors but they are not yet willing to wholeheartedly take to the pages or the streets with their views. They have worked long and hard at adapting themselves to the regime’s mechanics and are not suffering enough as a result of its existence to risk being shot of imprisoned for the sake of a vague notion of political freedom.
Syria’s is a society that has been born and raised in fear of both the known and the unknown. Consequently, Syria’s wealthier merchants would have to see their interests really hit hard before deciding to join the fray and risk what it entails. This may happen as a result of the impending EU and US sanctions. Conversely, foreign interference may actually affirm the regime’s accusation of Western intransigence and bolster its internal support.
This is why political and social discourse in Syria right now is so fundamentally necessary and yet gravely lacking. Such discourse needs to present and analyse the concepts of individual transparency, responsibility, accountability and basic human rights and to show how these concepts can ultimately lead to a better society for all.
Just because some Syrians have resigned themselves to paying their way out of trouble or into business does not absolve them from the need to be involved. Better it be a willing and thoughtful act now than a desperate one later. It would be more challenging yet far more progressive to believe in Syria as a country that can be prosperously governed in a non-dogmatic and non-authoritarian way.
Burning HIzbullah’s flag in Homs yesterday – youtube increasing signs of the growing sectarian lines that are being drawn. This is probably inevitable. Everyone is being forced to take sides. As we have seen elsewhere in the region, the fastest avenue to mobilization of the masses is through the use of sectarian symbols. The blowing up of the Hassan al-Askari mosque in Iraq by Sunni extremists in February 2006 was the final trigger to outright sectarian war. Whether something similar will happen in Syria, one cannot say. But why burn Hizbullah’s flag in Homs?