Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011
The Armed Gangs Controversy
I have taken up the “armed gangs controversy” in my last two posts. In the comment section, Syrians have debated whether the opposition has produced militant elements that are killing Syrian soldiers. A number of analysts, such as Majd Eid, who joined in the debate on France 24 yesterday, continue to argue that there is not a violent side to the uprising. They insist that Syrian soldiers are killing fellow soldiers, not opposition elements. This killing is carried out when security personnel refuse orders to shoot at crowds, they insist. So far, no evidence has surfaced to demonstrate that Syrian military have shot their fellow soldiers for refusing to carry out orders. Most evidence supports government statements that armed opposition elements have been shooting security personnel.
This controversy arose in April during the protests in Banyas, when nine soldiers were killed while traveling down the main highway in two transport vehicles outside of the city. Activists claimed that soldiers in Banyas were executed by fellow soldiers for refusing to shoot at demonstrators. This story turned out to be fictional, but was carried by most of the Western Press and never corrected. I wrote about this controversy on April 14 under the title: Western Press Misled – Who Shot the Nine Soldiers in Banyas? Not Syrian Security Forces. The reason I took an interest in this story is because my wife’s cousin, Lt. Col. Yasir Qash`ur, was one of the nine soldiers killed on April 10. We know him well. We spoke with Yasir’s brother-in-law, Colonel `Uday Ahmad, who was sitting in the back seat of the truck in which Yasir and several of the nine soldiers were killed. `Uday told us that two military trucks were ambushed as they crossed a highway bridge by well armed men who were hiding behind the median of the highway and on the tops of buildings at the edge of the road. They raked the two trucks with automatic fire, killing nine. The incident had nothing to do with soldiers refusing orders. His description of what happened so contradicted the reports I was reading in the press that I began to dig around. Later video footage of the shooting surfaced and was shown on Syrian TV. It corroborated Uday’s story. Western press and analysts did not want to recognize that armed elements were becoming active. They preferred to tell a simple story of good people fighting bad people. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the opposition was peaceful and was being met with deadly government force and snipers. One only wonders why that story could not have been told without also covering the reality – that armed elements, whose agenda was not peaceful, were also playing a role.
In the bloody battles at Jisr ash-Shaghour most of the Western Press again repeated opposition claims that some 100 Syrian soldiers were killed not by opposition elements but by their own colleagues. The Western press insisted that Syrian military elements were killed in the city by fellow soldiers for refusing orders to shoot. Government claims that the soldiers were killed by armed elements who ambushed and overwhelmed them, were dismissed. Today, teh video footage that has surfaced is fairly conclusive in corroborating the original government version of events: the soldiers stationed in the town were overrun by armed and organized opposition. Here is a video of some of the soldiers before they were killed. The first minute or two of this video shows the soldiers after being shot. This is unedited footage of the bodies before they were carried away on trucks.
In the Hama fighting, the video depicting dead bodies being thrown off a bridge into a river has been the subject of controversy. This video made by comparing Google Earth footage of the bridge to the actual video seems fairly conclusive in proving that the footage is new, is from Hama, and does depict opposition elements throwing the bodies of soldiers from the highway bridge into the `Asi River just north of Hama on the highway to Aleppo.
So what is the meaning of the emergence of armed opposition elements?
A prominent anti-government activist speaking on CNN said it best. Here is the CNN report by Arwa Damon and Nada Husseini of Aug. 2, 2011:
One prominent anti-government activist, who asked not to be named because of the dangers that could arise from the release of the information, told CNN the state TV account was correct. The bodies are those of Syrian secret police killed by Syrian fighters from Iraq who have joined the anti-government fight, said the activist, who gets information about the goings-on in Syria from an extensive network of informants.
That same activist stressed that the antagonists are not representative of the protest movement. Violent fringe elements have appeared during the Syrian tumult. One study last month from the International Crisis Group said some anti-government elements have taken up arms. However, that report said, “the vast majority of casualties have been peaceful protesters, and the vast majority of the violence has been perpetrated by the security services.
The activist said the emergence of this video is a double-edged sword for protesters.
On the one hand, the peaceful demonstrators need to become aware of the existence of fringe elements, he said. This would encourage more people to reject both the regime and these types of attacks and maintain the aims of peaceful protest, he said. At the same time, he added, the incident gives credence to the Syrian government’s assertion that it is targeting “armed gangs.” Such violence, he said, could cause the international community to hesitate in continuing its mounting pressure against the Syrian regime.
Most of the supporters of the revolutionary movement have responded to these videos by asking, “What does anyone expect? Are Syrians to simply wait to be killed? Of course violence will be met by violence. It is natural and the only surprise is that it has been so long in coming.”
This is a compelling argument. The Syrian opposition has been slow to arm in its effort to overthrow the Baathist state. The Free Officers Movement is gathering steam. The most recent video statement by the FOM shows that its membership is growing, although it is still only in the earliest formation. The leader declares that they will defend civilians against the “barbaric actions of the regime and their Shabbiha.” Other armed organizations are taking to the streets but none have officially declared their existence and set out political goals. This will undoubtedly happen in the coming months.
From the outset, this has been a war of videos. This video of a wife saying goodbye to her husband, killed in Hama on Aug 2 is heartbreaking. Such videos act as a call to arms.
The regime will battle to the end and still has much fight in it. The military has many advantageous over the fragmented opposition. It is unlikely that the regime will “collapse,” as some activists suggest or just fade away Ceausescu-like. If it is to be defeated, it will be on the battlefield and by force. It is hard to imagine any other ending. Of course, should both Damascus and Aleppo come out to demonstrate in large numbers, the breakdown of order will be hastened, but the military and Baath Party will not give up. Syria’s divisions are too deep. The fear of revenge and ethnic cleansing will galvanize those who have backed the present order for decades. Had the Syrian leadership been willing to hand over power peacefully or establish some sort of constitutional convention, it would have done so already.
The poverty and loss of dignity for so many Syrians is a crushing part of Syrian reality. Thirty-two percent of Syrians live on two dollars or less a day. That is a scary figure. It will get much worse as the loss of jobs and economic hardships begin to multiply. Syria is filled with people who have little to lose, who have little education, and few prospects of improving their chances for a better and more dignified life. The potential for violence and lawlessness is large. Most worrying is the lack of leadership among opposition forces.
News Round Up follows
Why Damascus, Aleppo are silent for now
The business elite in these Syrian cities have myriad overlapping interests with the political elite
By Sami Moubayed, Special to Gulf News, August 2, 2011
To date, most residents of Syria’s two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have tried to look the other way vis-à-vis the uprising that has broken out in every town and city across the country since mid-March. In these two cities, the markets are still open, banks are still in operation, merchants are still trading, entire families are dining at restaurants, young couples are getting married and, in many cases, enjoying the summer in complete denial of what is happening throughout the rest of Syria. So long as Damascus and Aleppo remain quiet, or neutral at best, the Syrian authorities believe the situation will be under control.
A closer look, however, shows that this argument — although applicable four months ago — is now nothing more than wishful thinking. First, it is wrong to compare Damascus to Aleppo because sympathy with the Syrian uprising is high in the Syrian capital, but low and close to non-existent in Aleppo because of the city’s distance, its relative immunity from the economic crisis (thanks to flourishing business relations with Turkey), and the unique relationship the city has had with President Bashar Al Assad, who has paid it plenty of attention since coming to power in 2000. Additionally, Aleppo paid a terrible price for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of 1982, and sees how the state is retaliating in other cities today, like Hama and Deir Ezzor. It does not want to suffer a similar fate.
It would be wrong to imagine that residents of the old quarters of Damascus — Shagour, Bab Sharki or Bab Srijeh — would be seen on the streets of the Syrian capital, demonstrating against the regime. This is not French Mandate Damascus, after all, where these quarters are filled with swashbuckling quarter bosses like the ones we see in the popular TV series Bab Al Hara. The reason, basically, is that these quarters in the Old City are now empty; the original residents sold their property years ago, transforming their homes into trendy restaurants and boutique hotels. They collectively moved to the suburbs of Damascus, and today, the original inhabitants of the Syrian capital reside in hotspots like Muadamiyeh, Zabadani, Qaboon, Harasta and Duma. It is the Damascenes then who are demonstrating in these districts, in addition of course, to the original inhabitants of these districts. The sameapplies to Aleppo and its suburbs.
Within the new districts of Damascus and Aleppo, the business elite has been staunchly pro-regime although, ironically, it was the business community of both cities that suffered most from socialism of the Baath Party when it first came to power in 1963. That will likely remain the case for now, due to the weight of their clerics (who are allied to the state), along with the political, social and economic interests of their nobility and business community. In many cases, that nobility is “new money” and rose to power and fame only after the Baathists took over in 1963. The have overlapping interests with the political elite and are often allied to them through business partnerships and marriage, giving them no reason to demonstrate against the existing order.
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Historically speaking, however, both cities can make or break any political movement — but rarely have they been part of anything that threatens stability and their commercial interests. In 1925, for example, rural Syria erupted in revolt against the French Mandate. Damascus very unwillingly joined the revolt of 1925, and when it did, suffered punishment greater than that of all other Syrian cities combined. It was shelled continuously for 48 hours and entire neighborhoods were set ablaze and looted. And Aleppo was not even part of the revolt of 1925. To be fair, although we make reference to the “Aleppo Revolt” in history books, it was the suburbs of Aleppo that revolted against the French. Aleppo itself remained silent. When the revolt calmed in 1927, it was the business elite of both cities that devised the theory of “honorable cooperation” with the government—diplomacy to extract political change, rather than armed revolt.
In Damascus, the merchants used to moan and groan whenever political parties, or youth movements, called on them to close down their shops for anti-government protests in the 1950s. Simply put, as far as the businessmen were concerned, all that meant was financial losses. That mentality still prevails in the old bazaars of Damascus and in the new posh and trendy corporate culture that has mushroomed around banks, insurance companies, advertising and media firms all over the Syrian capital.
The silence of both cities, however, won’t last for too long, for three reasons.
1) Unemployment: The moment rising unemployment kicks in, young people will take to the streets in both Damascus and Aleppo, regardless of what city elders tell them. Many young people are already jobless since March, and if the stalemate continues, they could start finding themselves penniless as well. Ramadan, no doubt, will be a turning point for these two cities.
2) Lack of community leaders: Back in the 1980s, for example, community leaders like Ahmad Kaftaro (the Grand Mufti) and Bader Al Din Al Shallah (doyen of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce) used their influence to pacify angry citizens in Damascus when they sympathised with the Brotherhood. People respected them, listened to them, and often carried out their without any questions. When Shallah famously asked shopkeepers to break the Damascus strike of 1982, they immediately answered his call. Today there are no community leaders with similar clout and standing in Damascus and Aleppo because the Baathists have not allowed any such independent leaders to emerge.
3) Demographics: Damascus, more so than Aleppo, is a melting pot for all Syrians. It is packed with people from rural Damascus, Daraa, Homs, Hama, Idlib and rural Idlib. It is those people who are likely to demonstrate in Damascus, rather than the Damascenes themselves, and those people, naturally, do not take their orders from the business community of Damascus.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus, Syria
[Moubayed’s] article is on the money. I am originally from Aleppo and come from a big family. I can assure everyone on this blog that Aleppo is boiling under the calm surface. It is only a matter of time before the city erupts. Mark my word.
Look at the pattern in this revolution: it starts with one stupid act by the regime in one of the villages, the village is up in arms, the surrounding villages come to the rescue and then the central city starts demonstrating.
U.S. Boosts Syria Pressure With Sanctions Plan
By Nicole Gaouette and Victoria Pelham – Aug 2, 2011
The U.S. is stepping up the pressure on Syria, ….“Our goal here is to isolate Assad both politically and deny” the regime revenue, Mark Toner, the State Department’s acting spokesman, said yesterday. “We do plan to move forward with additional sanctions under existing authorities, and we’re exploring the scope of those sanctions,” he said.
Ford, who met with Obama two days ago, told senators at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday that backing the forces of change could give the U.S. a chance to reshape the region.
“We have a real opportunity with change in Syria to see both Iranian influence and Hezbollah influence in the region diminish,” said Ford, a career diplomat who has been serving as ambassador under a December 2010 recess appointment by Obama.
Syria is Iran’s chief ally in the region and both support Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim political group that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. … Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, introduced the Syria Sanctions Act of 2011 to target the one-third of the country’s revenue that come from oil and gas exports.
U.S. law bans most trade with Syria. The sanctions bill would extend those restrictions to foreign companies. The measure would require the president to block access to U.S. financial institutions, markets and federal contracts for those who do business with the Syrian energy sector.
Companies that falsely claim not to do business with Syria would be subject to a three-year ban on government contracts. …Sanctions with allies that have greater trade ties with Syria would be more effective, Ford said. He added that “Europeans and Canadians have greater investments in Syria’s energy sector” and that conversations about sanctions with those countries are under way.
“The Syrian government’s latest action will help trigger action, frankly,” Ford said of the recent violence and the international outrage it has generated.
Asking for More
The Syrian activists asked Clinton to have the U.S. do more to rally that kind of international pressure on the Assad regime.
Aoun defends Syrian regime’s crackdown August 2, 2011 Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun on Tuesday defended Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, saying that security forces have the right to suppress “chaos on the streets.”
“It is clear that the intentions of the [Syria] opposition are not good,” he added following his bloc’s weekly meeting.
Syrian security agents briefly detained opposition leader Riad Seif at Damascus airport on Monday and prevented him from traveling to Germany to seek treatment for cancer, opposition sources said.
By James M. Dorsey
The failure to identify the perpetrators of last week’s mysterious killing of a senior Libyan rebel military commander threatens to undermine fragile unity among Colonel Moammar Qaddafi’s NATO-backed opponents and complicates Western efforts to secure United Nations condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters.
The killing highlights the pitfalls of backing a ragtag armed opposition movement, in which former jihadists together with defectors from Mr. Qaddafi’s forces constitute the primary groups with military experience.
It has also – coupled with allegations that NATO military backing of the rebels violates a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya – made countries like India, China, Russia and Brazil weary of endorsing a council resolution being pushed by the United States and the European Union that would condemn Mr. Assad’s brutal efforts to quell demonstrations in his own country.
Critics like China and Russia, concerned about the spillover effect in their own countries of the Arab revolt that has swept the Middle East and North Africa for the past eight months, worry not only that condemnation of Syria could lead to Western efforts to covertly or overtly topple Mr. Assad but that Libya if repeated in any form or fashion could create a legal precedent for intervention across the globe.
Egyptians Turn Against Liberal Protesters
By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV
CAIRO—Mobs of ordinary Egyptians joined with soldiers to drive pro-democracy protesters from their encampment in Tahrir Square here Monday, showing how far the uprising’s early heroes have fallen in the eyes of the public.
Egyptian security forces tear down tents of liberal protesters who had camped in Cario’s Tahrir Square to press military rulers for political reforms.
Six months after young, liberal activists helped lead the popular movement that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the hard core of these protesters was forcibly dispersed by the troops. Some Egyptians lined the street to applaud the army. Others ganged up on the activists as they retreated from the square that has come to symbolize the Arab Spring.
Squeezed between an assertive military and the country’s resurgent Islamist movement, many Internet-savvy, pro-democracy activists are finding it increasingly hard to remain relevant in a post-revolutionary Egypt that is struggling to overcome an economic crisis and restore law and order.
“The liberal and leftist groups that were at the forefront of the revolution have lost touch with the Egyptian people,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “These protesters have alienated much of Egypt. For some time they’ve been deceiving themselves by saying that the silent majority is on their side—but all evidence points to the contrary, and Monday’s events confirm that.”
DOHA, Qatar — As Bashar al-Assad’s shock troops storm cities and towns across Syria, leaving a death toll in the triple digits that has only stoked the fires of rebellion even hotter, Barack Obama’s administration is stepping up measures aimed at fatally weakening the Syrian dictator’s regime.
Critics of the U.S. president’s policy, particularly on the right, have long charged his administration with being soft on Assad. But the United States is now unequivocally committed to his ouster, having lost whatever little faith it had in the Syrian leader’s willingness to reform. “He is illegitimate,” a senior administration official says flatly. “We’ve definitely been very clear that we don’t see Assad in Syria’s future.”
Shaikh also advocates putting together an informal “contact group” of concerned countries — as with Libya — with a core group perhaps consisting of the United States, France, Qatar, and Turkey. But the all-important Turks, who share a border with Syria and have hosted thousands of refugees and several opposition meetings, are still hedging their bets. Sunday’s statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry called on the Syrian government to “end the operations and resort to political methods, dialogue and peaceful initiatives in order to reach a solution” — options that the protest movement explicitly abandoned several weeks ago.
But few analysts think words will do much to damage the deeply entrenched Syrian regime, and some, like the Century Foundation’s Michael Hanna, worry that Assad could limp on far longer than anyone expects. Nor would multilateral sanctions, even if they do somehow pass the Security Council, have an immediate effect. “It’s unlikely that, short of massive defections within the security services at an elite level, outside pressure is going to change the calculus of the inner circle of the regime,” says Hanna. Instead of being toppled, he cautions, Assad could become another international pariah, like Saddam Hussein or the Burmese junta.
Washington has made its decision, though nobody can say when Assad will go. “He’s on his way out,” says the senior administration official, stressing: “This is about the Syrian people, not about us. They’re the ones that say that they want someone else, and they should be able to choose the government that they want.”
The New Hama Rules By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, August 2, 2011
…. It worked for a long time in Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, etc., until it didn’t. Today, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s son, is now repeating his father’s mass murdering tactics to quash the new Syrian uprising, again centered in Hama. But, this time, the Syrian people are answering with their own Hama Rules, which are quite remarkable. They say: “We know that every time we walk out the door to protest, you will gun us down, without mercy. But we are not afraid anymore, and we will not be powerless anymore. Now, you leaders will be afraid of us. Those are our Hama Rules.”
This is the struggle today across the Arab world — the new Hama Rules versus the old Hama Rules — “I will make you afraid” versus “We are not afraid anymore.”
Good for the people. It is hard to exaggerate how much these Arab regimes wasted the lives of an entire Arab generation, with their foolish wars with Israel and each other and their fraudulent ideologies that masked their naked power grabs and predatory behavior. Nothing good was possible with these leaders. The big question today, though, is this: Is progress possible without them?
That is, once these regimes are shucked off, can the different Arab communities come together as citizens and write social contracts for how to live together without iron-fisted dictators — can they write a positive set of Hama Rules based not on anyone fearing anyone else, but rather on mutual respect, protection of minority and women’s rights and consensual government?
I think the former foreign minister of Jordan, Marwan Muasher, has the right attitude. “One cannot expect this to be a linear process or to be done overnight,” he said to me. “There were no real political parties, no civil society institutions ready to take over in any of these countries. I do not like to call this the ‘Arab Spring.’ I prefer to call it the ‘Arab Awakening,’ and it is going to play out over the next 10 to 15 years before it settles down. We are going to see all four seasons multiple times. These people are experiencing democracy for the first time. They are going to make mistakes on the political and economic fronts. But I remain optimistic in the long run, because people have stopped feeling powerless.”
Growing turmoil and violence in Syria have the European Union rolling up its sleeves to play a more active role in solving the problem by imposing asset freezes and travel bans. But economic sanctions by countries including Turkey might leave its business interests in the Arab republic in a tight spot
The prospect of more economic sanctions against increasingly strife-torn Syria have Turkish businessmen worried, leading business figures told the Hürriyet Daily News on Tuesday.
Growing turmoil and violence in Syria have the European Union rolling up its sleeves to play a more active role in solving the problem by imposing asset freezes and travel bans. But economic sanctions by countries including Turkey might leave its business interests in a tight spot.
“Sanctions imposed previously on other countries have not brought many sustainable solutions to problems,” Rona Yırcalı, the board chairman of the Foreign Economic Relations Board, or DEİK, told the Daily News in a phone interview Tuesday, though he noted that there was not yet much information available about the content of possible sanctions.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague is among the top European figures calling for tougher sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “The sanctions have to come from both Western nations, Arab countries and regional powers like Turkey,” Hague said in an interview Monday, according to the Associated Press. “The sanctions decision could not be made and applied by only Turkey. If the UN decides to apply sanctions, it is a different thing,” Tolga Uçak, the head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s information department told the Daily News on Tuesday. “It is not that easy to unite Arab nations to impose international sanctions against Syria,”
Rızanur Meral, the chairman of Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey, or TUSKON, told the Daily News. “Arab countries would know that a similar sanction might be imposed on their countries in the future.” According to Meral, the imposition of international sanctions against Syria does not seem possible at this time.
It would be “impossible for Turkey to step back from humanitarian help and sending food and medicine” to Syria, Meral said, adding that other trade items might be discussed according to the context of the sanctions. “It would be hard to control the borders for illegal trade,” he added, noting that Turkey shares its longest border with Syria.
Syrian money rushing to Turkey’s safe harbor