July 21, 2011 - Syria in the News: A Roundup of International Reportage

In the News | 21-07-2011

Syria's Protest Movement

Highly conflictual reportage on the nature of the outbreak of violence in the central city of Homs over the weekend has dominated international headlines since Saturday, while opposition talks scheduled to meet simultaneously in Istanbul and Damascus on July 16 hit significant obstacles amid opposition divisions and a security crackdown against the Damascus meeting point. The Qatari government withdrew its Ambassador from Syria and closed its embassy on Monday, while Syrian Foreign Minister Wallid Moallem imposed travel restrictions against the US and French ambassadors on July 20. As the month of Ramadan quickly approaches and disturbing levels of violence in Homs carry on amid the impasse between the government and opposition, there is no sign of respite from pervasive tensions across the country.
 
Protest flash points
On Sunday, international media reported that Syrian troops stormed a number of locations along the country's borders with Iraq and Lebanon. In Abu Kamal, a border town in the east, foreign reportage indicated that tens of soldiers defected late Saturday night amid crowds chanting, "The people and the army are one!", thus prompting the deployment of more troops to the restive area on Sunday. Reportage on the backup troops varies - with some sources stating that an estimated 150 were sent in via helicopters, others stating that hundreds arrived in about 20 busloads, and still others suggesting some 1,000 troops were sent in with tank and helicopter backing. 
 
The defections were announced by rights activist Mustafa Osso and Local Coordination Committee representative Omar Idilbu. The absence of international media makes all accounts impossible to confirm, though a number of videos posted on YouTube reportedly corroborate their allegations.
 
International media also reported that some 30 people died in Homs between Saturday and Sunday, amid violent clashes between pro- and anti-government protestors. According to Rami Abdul Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the clashes began when the dismembered bodies of three pro-government demonstrators were returned to their families over the weekend. 
 
The western cities of Zabadani and Qatana also saw large numbers of arrests of suspected dissidents over the weekend - including of Ali al-Abdullah, a 61-year-old writer and activist. Some estimate that as many as 500 dissident were detained in western border areas in the last 24 hours. The same reports suggest that some 2,000 security and military forces were deployed to both cities. 
 
On Tuesday, foreign media reported that some 16 people were killed in Homs as Syrian security and military forces allegedly opened fire on individuals participating in a funeral for those killed amid violence in the days before. The attack occurred in Khalidiya, a district in the city's east, which remains besieged by military forces. 
 
International media subsequently exploded with reportage categorizing the conflict in Homs as sectarian in nature. Oddly, however, the Syrian government did not highlight the alleged sectarian nature of the violence that apparently overtook the city, instead reporting, "Some terrorist groups of armed masked men on motorcycles exploited people gatherings to commit acts of terrorism and vandalism…The Interior Ministry will be firm in dealing with these armed and terrorist members and will use all means necessary to reduce their danger and preserve the safety of the homeland and the citizens according to the articles 304, 305 and 306 of the General Penalties Law." 
 
Another SANA report featuring the pictures of injured members of the military, put forth stories "illustrating the criminality of the outlawed armed groups against citizens, properties, and army and law-enforcement members in Homs." Given the government's propensity to threaten sectarian conflict if the unrest continues, it is unusual that it did not report the events as such.
 
To that end, Syrian activists strongly deny that Syrian civilians are responsible for sectarian killings in Homs. Many maintain that members of the country's security forces perpetrated the crimes in hopes of igniting already pervasive fears of the onset of sectarian conflict. 
 
Syrian opposition - National Salvation Council, divisions
On Saturday July 16 the Syrian opposition group, the National Salvation Council, was scheduled to meet simultaneously in two locations - in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun as well as in Istanbul, Turkey. The Council, organized by Meshaal Tamo and Haitham al-Maleh, was expected to draw members of the Local Coordination Committees, who are considered key players in the country's current protest movement. The Council was forced to scale back its plans, however, as extreme violence against protestors in Qaboun the day before followed by an attack by security forces against the meeting location on Saturday, rendered the Damascus meeting impossible. Some members of the opposition reportedly met in a different location and Skyped into the Istanbul conference to make speeches. 
 
Though meeting participants reportedly hoped to announce the formation of a shadow Syrian government on Saturday, disagreements among conference participants, who numbered around 350, prevented them from making any such decisions. According to international reportage, one of the biggest obstacles to the formation of an alternate government, came from concerns among Damascus-based activists about the motivations and backgrounds of their counterparts in Istanbul.
 
The group succeed in electing 25 exiles to its official Council, however, a number of participants walked out mid-meeting, including Kurdish delegates reportedly angered by the use of the term Syrian Arab Republic, which fails to recognize Syria's considerable Kurdish population. According to international reportage, tribal representatives also left the meeting in frustration. 
 
Many members of the opposition maintain that the collapse of the country's economy will bring about the collapse of the government itself, as the country's economic elites and middle classes will turn their collective backs on the government. However, so long as military elites remain loyal to the current government - and to date, there are few signs that this loyalty is faltering - the validity of such assumptions remains questionable.  
 
On Sunday, the 25 exiles elected to the National Salvation Council met in Istanbul to coordinate further plans to build a united front against the Syrian government. 
 
Syrian Electronic Army
A report by SANA issued on July 18, praises the work of the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) for its success "in foiling the schemes of a number of western, Arab and Arabic-speaking media responding to the misleading media attack targeting Syria." The SEA is the first public Internet Army in the world. It is used Syrian national networks to stage cyber attacks against presumed enemies. Specifically, it targets political opposition and Western media and business sites. In his June 20, 2011 address to the nation, President Assad bestowed much praise upon the group for its efforts to undermine enemies of the country. By official reports, the SEA is not affiliated with the Syrian government. 
 
The SEA primarily defaces and compromises websites and initiates denials of service on others including Orient TV, Al-Arabiya, BBC News, and Al Jazeera. Site defacements commonly include language such as, "We Are the Syrian People , We Love our President Bashar Al Assad and we are going to return our Jolan Back , our Missiles will be landing on each one of you if you ever think of attacking our beloved land SYRIA". For a complete overview of all of the SEA's activities researched by Information Warfare Monitor, follow this link.
 
Government releases recent detainees
On Saturday July 16, all 28 intellectuals who were arrested while participating in anti-government protests in the Damascus suburb of Midan on Wednesday - 10 women and 18 men - were released from custody.
 
Pro-government rallies
In recent weeks, government supporters across the country have taken to unfurling a massive Syrian flag - stretching over 500 meters - down boulevards and highways in a show of support for the government. 
 
On Sunday evening, Umayyad Square in central Damascus was overtaken by Syrians commemorating the 11th anniversary of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's swearing in. Fireworks went off around the evening as government supporters took to the streets to celebrate.
 
Amnesty International - prisoners held incommunicado  
On Monday July 18, Amnesty International issued a report indicating that tens of men are "being held incommunicado at unknown locations" following mass arrests in the Damascus suburb of Qatana on Saturday and Sunday. According to Amnesty, the men are "at risk of torture". The report also demanded that Syrian authorities announce the whereabouts of Ali al-Abdullah and all others detained over the weekend.  Last week, residents of Qatana held a number of anti-government protests. 
 
International Politics & Diplomacy
 
Travel Restriction - US & French ambassadors
On Wednesday, July 20, Syrian Foreign Minister Wallid Moallem announced that the US and French ambassadors to Syria, cannot leave the capital Damascus without first seeking official approval. Moallem warned that if either ambassador fails to heed the order, the government will officially impose a travel ban restricting their movement to within 25 kilometers of Damascus. Moallem made the announcement during a lecture at Damascus University, asserting that  "We did not evict the two ambassadors because we want the relations to develop in the future and in order for their governments to review their stances toward Syria. If these acts are repeated, we will impose a ban preventing diplomats from going more than 25 kilometers outside Damascus."
 
United States - Clinton rhetoric softens
On Saturday while in Istanbul, Turkey US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a number of statements during a joint appearance with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, that suggested a softening of US rhetoric on Syria's current crisis. With regard to the meeting held that day in the Turkish city by members of the Syrian opposition, Clinton said: “We’re encouraged by what we see the Syrian people doing for themselves, not anything the United States or any other country is doing. It’s what the Syrians are doing, trying to form an opposition that can provide a pathway, hopefully in peaceful cooperation with the government.”
 
Of the country-wide mass protests held across Syria only the day before, Clinton said Friday saw “the largest demonstrations to date in Syria, an effort to try to convey directly to the government the pent-up desire of the Syrian people for the kind of reforms they have been promised.” 
 
Clinton was in Turkey to participate in a two-day international conference on the Libyan issue. The revolutions across the Middle East have drawn the US and Turkey closer together. Following a failed bid to join the EU a decade ago, Turkey turned its attention toward fostering constructive relations with its neighbors in the Middle East - normalizing previously tense relations with Damascus, mediating between warring factions in Iraq, and upping trade with much of the region. The United States views Turkey as a critically important strategic ally, though there are key differences between the two, and is largely counting on Turkey's ability to help bring Damascus in from the fray. The US views the Turkish political system as the model upon which Arabic governments should restructure themselves. As Clinton put it on Saturday, “People across the Middle East, and North Africa particularly, are seeking to draw lessons from Turkey’s experience. It is vital that they learn the lessons that Turkey has learned and is putting into practice every day.”
 
European Union - calls for investigations, further sanctions
On Monday July 18 during the EU's Foreign Affairs Council meeting, EU foreign ministers pressed for an “independent, transparent and effective investigation” in accordance with that proposed for by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The EU also pressed for the Syrian government to allow international media to operate freely within the country and indicated that, "The EU will pursue and carry forward its current policy, including through sanctions targeted against those responsible for or associated with the violent repression." 
 
Arab League, Syria - necessity of reform
The head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, reportedly travelled to Syria last week to discuss the "necessity of reform". Elaraby did not provide further information regarding the outcome of his visit. His time in Damascus including a meeting with President al-Assad and was part of a tour of the region. Last week, Elaraby was also widely quoted as saying that the Arab League does not accept “outside interference in the internal affairs of the Arab countries" - regardless of mounting international pressure on the Syrian government to enact meaningful reforms and bring the violence against protestors to an end. Of his meeting with President Assad, Elaraby said, “I met with President Bashar Al-Assad ... I spoke to him about the necessity of reform and I received a promise from him that he will work on that.”
 
Iraq - Iraqi refugees fleeing Syria
Last week, reports emerged indicating that growing numbers of Iraqi refugees living in Syria, are returning to Iraq amid rising fears of sectarian violence in Syria. According to Hayat Saad, a legal officer in an Iraqi refugee center in Baghdad, since May 1, an average of 20 families a day have returned to Iraq from Syria. The total number of returnees thus far, is estimated to be 7,000. 
 
Iran - economic bailout
According to international media, Iran is considering providing Syria with $5.8 billion in much-needed financial assistance, including a three month loan of $1.5 billion, set to be immediately available. According to the same reportage, Iran is also poised to provide Syria with 290,000 barrels of oil a day in the coming month. Damascus and Tehran are long-standing allies. For more analysis of the move, see here. The Syrian government adamantly denies such reports. 
 
Qatar - embassy closure
On Monday July 18, Qatar officially closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrew its ambassador, following two attacks on the embassy by men loyal to President Assad. Qatar and Syria formerly had strong diplomatic relations. However, relations deteriorated markedly in March following the onset of the violent crackdown against members of the Syrian opposition.
 
Lebanon - Syrian refugees
On July 19, international media reports indicated that Syrians were again fleeing violence in border towns under military siege, by taking refugee in the neighboring Lebanese town of Wadi Khaled. That day, some 300 reportedly crossed the border, after violence in the Syrian towns of Bouait and Heet flared. 
 
Further Reading
 
"Syrian Security Forces Accused of Killing 16 in Homs" - Los Angeles Times - Though cited above, this is an important read for those following the crisis in Syria. This report puts forth evidence that undermines widespread reportage of civilian-instigated sectarian conflict in Homs. No reportage on the Syrian revolution can ever be confirmed. This highlights the discrepancies. 
 
"The Torture of My Father by the Syrian Regime" - Maysaloon Blog - Another well-written and this time, notably personal, post by a well-respected Syrian expat blogger.
 
"Justice Isn’t Going to Fix Syria" - The Star - A provocative editorial by Josh Scheinert critiquing the idea of sending President Bashar a-Assad and other key Syrian officials to the International Criminal Court, asserting that the move is "an empty gesture". Scheinert argues that bringing the Syrian case to the ICC would undermine the Court's credibility and hinder a future peace process in Syria - should the country fall farther into disarray; a warrant for the arrest of the Syrian President would likely never be acted on. Meanwhile, the ICC would have taken on a massive and resource-consuming case with dismal prospects for a constructive outcome. A worthwhile read as the international community debates how to approach the Syrian crisis. 
 
"Brotherhood Seeks New Lease of Life in Syria" - The Financial Times - A well-written clip covering perceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the group's tumultuous history here, its prospects for acquiring further power in a post-Assad state, and the debate over growing Islamist trends among Syria's youths.
 
"Correspondent's Diary: Hoping for Peace, Bracing for Violence" - The Economist - A short, but interesting read. The reporter met with a number of activists in Hama and puts forth their perspectives on the revolution.  
 
"Over the Wall: A Tale of Two Embassies" - The Weekly Standard - David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, offers up an interesting interpretation of the utility of US Ambassador Ford's controversial trip to Hama early in July - and the subsequent attack on the US Embassy in Damascus. Schenker notes that this is not the first time such an attack against the Embassy has been employed by Syrian officials to make a firm statement about US policy and actions with regard to, and in this case, inside of Syria. 
 
"Why the US is No Longer an Effective Scarecrow in Syria" - Al-Arabiya - Abdul Rahman al-Rashed argues that while in past years, propaganda portraying forces of dissent as foreign conspirators worked well, at present, the tactic has lost its sway. According to Rashed, in the past Syrians would have been staunchly opposed to any sort of international intervention in their country's domestic affairs, however, this is no longer the case. No doubt, many millions would take issue with this charge. However, Rashed does raise some interesting points with regard to shifting perceptions of government scare tactics and propaganda: "In the past it was enough to quote a US official statement in order to mobilize public opinion in the interests of the regime. Indeed some regimes have been able to live on a diet of inflammatory statements against Israel and claims of defending the homeland against western conspiracy. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the people here are no longer interested in such rhetoric, this has become a broken record." He continues, "Why threats of Israel and the West are not effective any more? People, here, are fed up with lack of progress in their own communities. In Syria, for example the majority have suffered a long history of suppression, and they have risen up in a revolution against injustice, not in favor of any political trend or foreign country, such as the US or France. This revolution represents the majority of the Syrian people…"
 
"Aimless Syria Policy, Aimless President" - The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute - A short and telling editorial by Danielle Pletka, a well-known conservative analyst. Pletka takes aim at the Obama Administration's failure to advance a coherent Syria policy and at the same time offers up a view increasingly held by Republicans and Democrats alike.
 
"Syria’s Struggle" - The New York Times - The NYT Editorial Board published its take on the Syrian revolution on July 18, stating that "We are in awe at the courage of the Syrian people and disgusted by the brutality of President Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen. Mr. Assad has lost all legitimacy." The Board focused on the issue of how the international community could best support Syrian dissidents, noting that, "A foreign military intervention is out of the question. It is a far more complex case than Libya, and there is no international support for it." The Board went on to highlight the inconsistency of the US's response to the situation, called on Turkey to join the west in imposing sanctions against the Syrian government, and urged the US and Europe to stop sending mixed signals to the Syrian government.  
 
"US Falls Short of Moral High Ground on Syria" - The New York Times - Another article highlighting the trouble with the US's Syria policy, this time highlighting the US's confusion regarding how best to deal with the Russia/China veto on the UN Security Council.
 
"Ads Push For Middle Ground Amid Syrian Conflict" - National Public Radio - A good clip from NPR on an ad campaign in Damascus funded by local media professionals, seeking to mitigate rampant tensions. One of the ad images is of a large, raised hand with a caption, "I am for Syria." At the top, it states "The goal of the initiative is to raise awareness and to accept different opinions." Other captions read: "Arrests or bullets: I do not believe it";  "I am with the law, but where is it?";  "My way is your way, but there's a tank in the way"; "I am those millions: thugs, thieves, lackeys — call me whatever you want," and; "We thank all the brave Syrians who broke the silence and expressed their views." Worth reading. 
 
Energy 
New power facility
On Tuesday, Syria opened a $50.5 million facility constructed by Alstom SA (ALO) that will manage the national power grid. The new building will operate 50 power transfer and generation stations and is set to expand to include a further 20 in the future.
 
Security
Transfer of missiles, Syria to Hezbollah
According to a report published in Australian media, the Syrian government has allegedly accelerated efforts to supply weapons, ballistic missiles among them, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The report published on July 16, was derived from regional intelligence sources. The report also maintains that Damascus is moving ahead with efforts to build sophisticated missiles in a mountain not far from Hama. The ballistic missiles transferred to Hezbollah, Scud D surface-to-surface, and allegedly assembled with the aid of experts from North Korea, are highly accurate and place all of Israel, Jordan, and a significant portion of Turkey within range. The report alleges that the flow of weapons from Syria into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, has been growing since the inception of the unrest in Syria in March. 
Written by: Evelyn Aissa
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