Twenty-two consecutive Friday's into the Syrian revolt, Damascus finds itself increasingly encircled by international condemnation. Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar all withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus early last week, following a speech by Saudi King Abdullah urging an end to the violence and the implementation of real reform, and weekend statements from both the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council denouncing the country-wide violence. Turkish Foreign Minister Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday to demand the cessation of violence within two weeks, while the US imposed further economic sanctions against the country's financial system. At the same time, another estimated 150 civilians were killed in crackdowns across the country between August 7 and 12.
Ramadan Unrest: August 3 - 12
On Wednesday August 3, international media reported that 30 people were killed in the ongoing siege of Hama as tanks reportedly pushed deep into the center of the city. Some 200 tanks were reportedly deployed to Deir ez-Zor, which also remains under siege. In the evening, another six people were reportedly shot in killed following tarawih (evening prayers) - including two in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan and one in the ancient city of Palmyra.
Activists and city residents allege that the siege of Hama has led to massacres of the city's population, with many sources claiming that those attempting to flee the city were shot at, as were any individuals found out on the streets. It is impossible to confirm the events there, however, all foreign reportage suggests a grave situation
In the Damascus neighborhood of Midan, protesters reportedly threw rocks at members of security forces who used tear gas to attempt to disperse the crowds. According to international reportage, security forces were eventual scared off. Small protests were held in a number of central Damascus neighborhoods and some, sympathetic to the protest movement, have taken to wearing white shirts. Some media reported that large groups of people protesting in the city center wearing white shirts were arrested.
Rallies were reportedly held in Aleppo and Qamishli, Daraa, Idlib, Irbin, Lattakia, and Homs, as well as Deir ez-Zor. Some media report that residents of Hama even attempted to take to the streets again, though the prevalence of security forces and ongoing shelling of the city, prevented large crowds from amassing.
Protestors in Jableh, a town not from the coastal city of Lattakia, who were fearful of being identified by mukhabarat reportedly took to the streets with their faces painted as Syrian flags
On Friday night, SANA
sent out mass text messages across the country, urging citizens to watch local broadcasts of videos that reportedly captured terrorist
activities, including the dismemberment of a man, in Deir ez-Zor.
The following day, activists reported to international media that further tanks
had been deployed to Deir ez-Zor and Homs. Security forces also reportedly arrested prominent opposition member, Walid al-Bunni, as well as two of his sons.
On Sunday August 7, in defiance of growing international condemnation of the government's use of violence against civilian populations and just one week after waging a brutal attack against the city of Hama, the government reportedly initiated a military incursion in the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor in the early hours of the morning. Hundreds of tanks had reportedly taken up post in and around the city. According to Abdul-Karim al-Rihawi, the head of the Syrian League for Human Rights, heavy gunfire and shelling was reported throughout the day, resulting in the deaths of some 42 city residents and the injuring of hundreds of others.
The Syrian government adamantly denies
all reports of tanks and associated shelling in Deir ez-Zor.
Though protesters in Deir ez-Zor had reached numbers in the hundreds of thousand in recent weeks, the government had yet to engage in a full-scale crackdown against the demonstrators. Many speculate
that this is because the area is known for its deep-rooted tribal connections, which would make the use of extreme violence against residents of Deir ez-Zor particularly risky. It is well known that the tribes in Deir ez-Zor are armed and ready to defend themselves. The tensions in Deir ez-Zor reached a new peak in July, when security forces arrested a key figure in the town - Sheik Nawaf al-Bashir.
Military forces also moved into the town of Houleh in the province of Homs on Sunday, leading to the deaths of 10 more civilians.
Local media reported that Syrian security forces had succeeded in taking down a number of road blocks in Hama on Sunday. According to state sources, security forces also found the bodies of 13 policemen in and along the Oronotes River. The bodies were reportedly mutilated. The road blocks and killings were all attributed to armed groups and terrorists
who, according to official media, also prevented the injured from seeking treatment in hospitals.
On Wednesday August 10, the Syrian army expanded its operations to two new towns, Taftanaz and Sermin, near to the country's border with Turkey. According to international media
, 12 tanks were deployed to the towns. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that a woman was killed during the offensive while another 13 were injured.
At the same time, 16 people were reportedly killed by security forces in Homs and military forces officially seized control of Deir ez-Zor after several days of a reportedly full-fledged military incursion. Mass arrests were also carried out in Albu Kamal on Wednesday.
Friday August 12
The Damascus suburb of Harasta - the scene of near daily protests and violence - also allegedly staged mass demonstrations, as did Idlib and the coastal city of Lattakia. According to foreign reportage, the suburbs of Damascus drew the largest numbers of protestors. The appearance of mass unrest in both Damascus and Aleppo suggests that the relative quietude of both cities (see below for more information) is perhaps coming to end.
Protest were also reported in Qamishli and Jibleh. According to Syrian activists, the government is using a new tactic to manage the unrest, allegedly moving in on crowds before they exit from mosques.
Fatalities were reported in Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Damascus and Idlib, with the death toll from the day between 15 and 17 people - seven of whom were killed in the country's capital.
Damascus & Aleppo
Though the revolution has spread to nearly all corners of the country, Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's two largest cities, both remain relatively calm by comparison - though the events in both cities yesterday suggest that might be changing. While mass protests are now regularly seen in the capital's suburbs, only small groups have rallied in central Damascus. Aleppo has also remained predominantly quiet, with sporadic exceptions. There is much speculation as to the cause of this silence and as the revolution progresses and the unrest deepens, many outside the country's two key cities are angered by the cities' inaction, seeing Damascus and Aleppo as escaping comparatively unscathed by the violence and indeed disinterested in the plight of the rest of the country.
Most argue that in the case of Damascus, the city's upscale residents have reaped significant economic gains from the country's government and are not keen to see the current system collapse for fear of considerable economic losses. Aleppo too has prospered in recent years
by comparison to the rest to the country, with a growing textile industry, increased cross-border trade with Turkey, more pharmaceutical companies and factories. Both Aleppo and Damascus are also home to the largest numbers of Syria's Christians - leading many to believe that the protection
they have had under President Assad and his father before him, has inspired their silence as well.
There are likely other more subtle issues at play too, for many speculate that the governament recognizes that it cannot lose either city to the otherwise rampant protest movement. Illegal construction is booming, street vendors have free reign, traffic laws are not enforced, bribery in government offices has declined, electricity theft is overlooked and sugar prices in Aleppo are reportedly lower than anywhere else in the country. All these shifts and concessions are coupled with the pervasive and worsening presence of security forces across both cities, thus rendering mass protests remarkably dangerous. While the depth of the loyalties of both cities' residents is debatable, it is clear that the current revolution will not succeed in the absence of sustained mass protests in both.
Government decrees, efforts to mitigate tensions
On Thursday August 4, President Bashar al-Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 101 thus enacting the 2011 General Elections Law. The law specifies that a higher judicial committee and a number of judicial sub-committees will supervise the elections process. According to state sources, elections are to be held "with public, secret, direct and equal voting where each Syrian voter, who completed eighteen years old, has one vote." The same sources state that policemen and army members are in service are not allowed to participate in elections. For more details, see here
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem announced on Saturday August 6 that "the Syrian leadership is committed to push ahead with reforms and to put them in place" and that "general elections will be held by the end of this year
". The elections, it should be noted, are parliamentary.
Moallem also stated that, ''The Syrian leadership still stresses that national dialogue is the way to solve the current crisis, and in the absence of such dialogue due to the opposition's negative stances, we have no other choice but to go down the path of reforms without leaving it hostage to any hindering factor."
On August 8, President Assad announced that he was replacing Gen. Ali Habib Mahmoud with Gen. Dawood Rajiha
as Minister of Defense. According to SANA, Gen Habib had "been ill for some time, and his health condition deteriorated recently".
Interestingly the same day, the Ministry of Defense website was hacked by the hacker group Anonymous, leaving messages in Arabic and English expressing admiration
for Syrian protestors and urging the Syrian military to protect Syrians against the current government.
Alleged crimes against humanity
International Politics & Diplomacy
While the Obama Administration is under pressure from certain elements of its domestic constituency to call for President Assad to step down - and there is indeed much speculation that President Obama is on the brink of doing so - many Middle East and foreign policy experts are advising against such a move, noting that the Syrian opposition is not yet organized enough to provide a viable alternative to the current government.
Instead, some among them are advocating for treating President Assad as an international pariah
- further isolating the Syrian government politically and economically whilst forming an 'contact group' supported by regional players to help fortify the Syrian opposition, enabling it to develop a "future transitional authority" - a risky venture.
Others are pushing for further creative diplomacy
, identifying tactics such as sending the US Ambassador to additional flash points to obtain information on the situation whilst showing support for the Syrian opposition. The extent to which this is possible, however, remains unclear; US Ambassador Ford now operates under travel restrictions imposed by the Syrian government following his trip to Hama in early July.
US President Barack Obama reportedly had separate phone calls with France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel on August 5 to discuss options for increasing international pressure on Damascus. According to a White House statement issued the same day, the leaders "condemned the Assad regime’s continued use of indiscriminate violence against the Syrian people." The three also "welcomed the August 3 presidential statement by the UN Security Council condemning Syria’s actions, but also agreed to consider additional steps to pressure the Assad regime and support the Syrian people
On Thursday, the US Treasury Department broadened its sanctions against Syria
, this time targeting the country's financial infrastructure through the Commercial Bank of Syria
, its Lebanon-based subsidiary and the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank. New sanctions were also imposed against the mobile phone network Syriatel
. The move freezes all US-based assets the firms posses and prohibits Americans from conducting business with them. For further details, see here
Gulf Cooperation Council
According to the official, bringing an end to the violence "requires that the Arabs in the GCC call for stopping sabotage acts and condemning armed violence of groups which don’t have good intentions for Syria, in addition to giving the space and time needed to translate reforms into reality." The Syrian government had hoped the GCC "would reconsider their stances taking into account the Syrian leadership's efforts to overcome the current crisis, achieve stability and security and meet the needs of the Syrian people," the official said.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain
The King's statement is the strongest and clearest to come from leadership in the Arab world and for that reason, many argue that it should be welcomed. On the other hand, however, most regional experts and commentators were quick to point out the hypocrisy of it all, noting that democracy, the freedom to protest and the implementation of real systemic reforms, are entirely absent from Saudi Arabia.
To that end, Brian Whitaker of The Guardian
, termed King Abdullah's move part of a broader "monarchical insurance scheme
" whereby Saudi Arabia is seeking to tighten alliances with other kingdoms in the region (including those of Jordan and Morocco, which were just recently invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council) whilst working to undermine the revolution in Yemen and in the case of Syria - fortifying the country's Sunni opposition so as to counter the regional weight of Iran.
Less than a day after King Abdullah issued his statement, the governments of Kuwait and Bahrain both recalled
their ambassadors from Damascus. Sheikh Khaled al-Khalifa explained via Twitter, that Bahrain "decided to summon our ambassador to Syria for consultation and we stress the importance of acting wisely
During an iftar (the evening meal during which Muslims break fast during Ramadan) speech in Istanbul on August 5, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will travel to Damascus on Tuesday August 9 to deliver a number of messages to the Syrian government.
"If the Turkish government does not consider the issue of Syria as foreign matter due to the historic and cultural relations, Syria has always welcomed consultation among friends, but it categorically rejected all regional or international attempts of interference in its internal affairs," Shaaban continued.
On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with President Assad for six hours in Damascus, reportedly to give President Assad an ultimatum
- end the violence against civilians and implement real reforms within two weeks
, or expect a serious intensification of pressure and interference from Turkey.
According to SANA, President Assad responded to Davutoglu's demands, by stating that Damascus “will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and the security of the citizens. But it is also determined to continue reforms. And is open to any help offered by friendly and brotherly states."
The following day, the Turkish Ambassador to Syria, Omer Onhon, visited Hama and confirmed reports by the Syrian government that the country's military forces had withdrawn from the city. Of the visit, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a speech at Turkey's Justice and Development headquarters in Ankara, "Our ambassador went to Hama and said that the tanks, security forces had started to leave Hama. This is highly important to show that our initiatives had positive results
." He continued, "We hope that within 10 -15 days this will be realized and steps will be taken toward the reform process in Syria."
Turkey's growing hostility toward Damascus, however, has been met with concern among the ruling Justice and Development Party's opposition, members of which note that Turkey's recent rhetoric
hints at Ankara's possible willingness to wage war
Lebanon's Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour met with President Assad in Damascus on Sunday August 7 and reiterated that Lebanon continues to reject "attempts of foreign interference in Syria's internal affairs
". Lebanon's stability "stems from the stability of Syria's internal affairs," he continued. During the meeting, SANA
also reported that President Assad informed Mansour that “Syria is on the path to reform ...To deal with outlaws who cut off roads, seal towns and terrorize residents is a duty of the state which must defend security and protect the lives of civilians”.
Earlier on Sunday, Mansour defended Lebanon's highly controversial disassociation
with the UNSC August 3 presidential statement on Syria, stating that “Lebanon’s position at the Security Council toward events in Syria stems from its convictions of the historic and sisterly relations with Syria and shared interests between the two countries.” He continued, “The decision was a positive one because we cannot go along with a decision that condemns Syria or one that opposes it. Since independence, we, until today, have taken a positive policy toward [sisterly states], particularly Syria."
Hezbollah has taken considerable heat for its continued support of the Syrian government in the face of violent crackdowns against Syrian civilians. As the unrest in Syria intensifies, Syrian perceptions of Hezbollah's legitimacy are waning, with many enraged by its blatant hypocrisy
The Syrian border town of Albu Kamal shares strong tribal ties with the Iraqi town of Qaim and as unrest and subsequent military action have taken hold of Albu Kamal, international media report that residents of Qaim are channeling supplies to their relatives in Albu Kamal. When the Syrian military forces along the border were deployed to Albu Kamal, their Iraqi counterparts were left managing increased numbers of smugglers.
At the same time, there is concern that protest-related violence on the Syrian side could provoke Sunni tribes on the Iraqi side, who are known to oppose the current Syrian government. During the recent war in Iraq, insurgents regularly slipped across the border into Iraq.
Though the United Nations Security Council issued a presidential statement last week in response to the violent suppression of the Syrian protest movement after months of infighting over the form and substance of the text, the fallout from the Council's weak response to the situation continues. International human rights and aid organizations, as well as a number of foreign governments and policy experts
, have lambasted
the move as entirely ineffectual.
The UN Human Rights Council based in Geneva issued a statement on Friday saying that "The Government of Syria cannot be allowed to violate with impunity its obligation to uphold international law nor attack the very citizens it has sworn to protect without consequences. We unequivocally call on the Government of Syria to immediately cease the violent crackdown, stop the killings and pursue dialogue through peaceful processes."
UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, also issued a statement asserting that, “It is of utmost importance that the [Syrian] government finally addresses the legitimate concerns of peaceful protestors, instead of silencing their voices with brute force."
On Wednesday August 10, the UN Security Council also received a private briefing on the situation in Syria by Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, a high-level UN political officer. In a statement after the meeting, British deputy UN Ambassador Philip Parham described the briefing as “chilling” and “depressing," stating that “It is clear that the military offensive by the regime against its own people continues; an offensive which is brutal, an offensive which is unwarranted and an offensive which is in breech of the regime’s international legal obligations
. And just to remind you of the scale of what we are talking about, some 2,000 civilians have now been killed, the vast majority of them unarmed. Some 3,000 civilians have been forcibly disappeared. Some 13,000 remain detained."
South Africa, Brazil and India
"Fear of Arrest
" - Jadaliyya
- A translation by Hani Sayed of a text published on the internet by a member of a Local Coordination Committee in Damascus seeking to reduce activists' fears of arrest by providing a detailed account of the detainee's likely experience. By virtue of the unknown author's remarkably forthright tone and proclivity for detail, the conviction of his and other activist's sentiments becomes startlingly apparent.
" - Qunfuz
- A scathing assessment of the Syrian government's use of its foreign policy of 'resistance' to Israel, to maintain dominion over its public. The author evaluates the government's resistance record and the cost of supporting it on the basis of its foreign policy.
"Eyewitness Account from Hama
" - Facebook
- Throughout the unrest, social media has been key to connecting activists and witnesses inside Syria, to eachother as well as to the outside world. This Facebook
posting is one such example, whereby an eye witness details the situation in Hama. It goes without saying, the posting in its entirety cannot be confirmed.
"Syria And The Armed Gangs Controversy – Analysis
" - Syria Comment
- Well-known Syria analyst Joshua Landis takes up the debate over whether armed gangs are behind some of the violence in Syria. The article highlights biases on all sides and the complexity of understanding and responding to the crisis - for both domestic and international actors.
"Where's Syria's Business Community?
" - Middle East Institute
- One of the best assessments thus far of Syrian business community and the motivations behind its relative quiet. Author Randa Slim also issues a number of policy recommendations at the end, each of which are notable for their plausibility.
"The Truth About Assad's Version of the "Truth" in Syria
" - The Huffington Post
- A blog post by James Miller employing video footage to highlight concerns over the gap between official statements regarding the nature of the unrest and those coming from ordinary citizens. A very interesting post as Miller dissects video footage posted by the government and opposition, identifying doctored uploads.
On Friday August 5, Turkish authorities confirmed earlier reports that they had intercepted an arms shipment from Iran to Syria
. The weapons were seized from a cargo plane headed to Syria. Authorities believe the weapons were ultimately headed to Hezbollah in Lebanon.