March 23, 2011 - Syria in the News: A Roundup of International Reportage

In the News | 23-03-2011
Highlight
The unrest so prevalent throughout the Middle East in recent months arrived in Syria last week. Following small rallies in Damascus on March 15th and 16th, namely to demand the release of political prisoners, a total of 33 protestors were detained.
 
The individuals detained were charged with attacking the reputation of the state, among much else. On the 19th, ten women among the detained protestors initiated an open-ended hunger strike. The swift and strong response of local authorities prompted a number of international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, to issue statements in condemnation of their actions.
 
Though security was quickly restored in Damascus, unrest then took hold in the southern tribal town of Daraa only a few days later, as well as in Homs, Aleppo and the coastal town of Banias. Reportedly, the catalyst for the unrest in Daraa was the imprisonment of a group of 15 youngsters who, after weeks of watching international media coverage of the regime-changes in both Tunisia and Egypt, decided to write political slurs about their own government on a wall. Locals came out by the thousands last Friday, to protest against the imprisonment of the teenagers. Security forces used live ammunition against the crowds, causing the immediate deaths of six.
 
Thousands again gathered the following day to attend the funeral of two of the individuals killed on Friday. Crowds were dispersed with water canons and tear gas. Crowds continued to gather and swell on Sunday, as an official delegation sent by the President arrived in the city to offer condolences to the families of the dead protestors. According to media sources, the security situation in the city then became quite tenuous as protestors set fire to private and public properties. International media reports state that another individual was also shot and killed by security forces on Sunday and that an 11-year-old boy, died on Monday from complications resulting from tear gas inhalation. The response of security forces was strong, thus leading to the closing-off of the city and a decline in disruptive activities. On Tuesday the 22nd, government reports suggested that the situation in Daraa seemed to have returned to comparative calm. There are additional reports, however, suggesting that early in the morning of the 23rd, further unrest resulted in the deaths of another six people. At the moment, local news sources are blaming armed gangs for the violence.

Regarding the weekend's unrest in Daraa, there are differing reports regarding who was responsible for the worst of it. Authorities here blame the situation on outsiders, including Palestinian extremists. The President has also promised an official investigation into the deaths of the protestors and indeed sacked the governor of the city. Inhabitants of Daraa, all quite close and interconnected due to tribal affiliations, have put forth a number of issues for the consideration of the government, including requests to curb local corruption. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also called on the government to conduct an open and transparent investigation into the weekend’s unrest.

For obvious reasons, international media coverage of the turn of events here in Syria has been extensive. Over forty major international news sources ran feature stories on the situation here. Setting aside those articles already referenced above, there are a number of additional notable reads as well as one audio report: Foreign Policy: “The Revolution Reaches Damascus”; National Public Radio: “Unrest Erupts in Syria” (audio clip); The BBC: “Syria Unrest: US Condemns ‘Disproportionate Force’”; Al Jazeera: “Syria’s Coming Revolution?”; The Guardian: “Standing Up to the West Isn’t Enough to Save Assad,” and; The Economist: “The Arab Awakening Reaches Syria.”

Now, for the remainder of the weekly international news roundup.

Regional Unrest, Politics & Diplomacy

Last week, President Bashar al-Assad met with Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Trinidad Jimenez, to discuss efforts to bolster bilateral relations between Syria and Spain, the impasse in the Middle East peace process, and the issue of foreign intervention in neighboring states. During the meeting, President Assad stressed the importance of respecting state sovereignty – an issue of particular relevance given the international community’s recent decision to implement a no-fly zone over Libya under the guise of protecting Libyan civilians. 

To that end regional unrest, the so-called Arab Spring, seems to be trending towards increased violence. In response to the implementation of the no-fly zone, Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, made a number of official statements expressing Syria’s strong position against any foreign intervention in Libya. Relatedly, Moallem also met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the 18th, to discussed methods of promoting increased peace and stability throughout the region.

The President also met the Advisor to the Saudi King, Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, last week to discuss the status of social unrest in Bahrain. During the meeting, President Assad received a message from Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz affirming the Kingdom’s commitment to strengthening relations between the two countries. In 2009, Saudi-Syrian relations showed signs of warming after several years of marked tension - namely following the assassination of Rafik Hairiri. Given the failed joint Saudi-Syrian effort to mediate Lebanon's crisis of government in January of this year, there has been much speculation regarding the future of Saudi-Syrian relations.

While attending the Leaders of Change Summit 2011/Istanbul World Political Forum, Syrian Presidential Political and Media Advisor Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban discussed the issue of political stability in the region, reiterating that the west and the United States in particular, only act on the basis of strategic interests (e.g. oil) and that issues of human rights and freedom throughout the Middle East were not on the American agenda. She encouraged the west to rethink its policies and respect the will of the people and governments throughout the region. 

Economic Development & Trade

In a matter of weeks, Syria will sign a contract with Ukraine to swap wheat grains between the two countries. Syria will export hard wheat in exchange for Ukrainian soft wheat. The volumes of grain to be traded have not yet been disclosed. According to the US Department of Agriculture, it is likely that Syria’s wheat production will increase in the coming growing season from 3.6m metric tones to 4m. 

Additionally, Syria and Ecuador signed a number of agreements on trade, tourism and political cooperation last Thursday at the International Cooperation and Planning Commission, headquartered here in Damascus. The agreements include increased promotion and marketing of tourism-related products as well as in trade. 

Finally, the government of Japan sent Syria 92 garbage trucks on Sunday at a cost of 12m. The trucks are set to make their way to Homs, Idleb, Lattakia, Suweida, Hama and Damascus. 

Security

On March 19thTurkey intercepted an Iranian cargo plane allegedly en route to Syria. Turkish security forces boarded and searched the plane and discovered only 150 tons of food. Turkish authorities again intercepted and searched another such suspicious plane on the 21st – with the same outcome. 

Energy

Following the Syrian-Turkish Energy Cooperation Forum held in Damascus on the 17th, Syria’s Assistant Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Hassan Zeinab, stressed the importance of furthering Turkish-Syrian economic and political relations – particularly in the field of energy. At present, a 62km oil pipeline between Aleppo and Syria’s border with Turkey, is under construction. Turkey’s Assistant Minister of Electricity, Hisham Mashafj, likewise highlighted the significance of the two countries’ cooperation in the field of electric power. In 1993, Turkey and Syria signed an Agreement of Electric Linkage. Egypt, Jordan and Iraq were also signatories of the agreement and in 2008, Lebanon, Palestine and Libya likewise joined. 

Written by: Evelyn Aissa
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