May 18, 2011 - Syria in the News: A Roundup of International Reportage

In the News | 18-05-2011

Syria's Protest Movement

The deadlock between the Syrian government and those fomenting unrest across the country continues, as protestors continue to take to the streets, albeit in vastly lower numbers, and more civilians and members of Syrian security personnel perish in the violence. International condemnation of the Syrian government's response to the crisis seems to have reached a near tipping point, with many speculating that it will not be long before the EU imposes targeted sanctions against the Syrian President himself.
 
Protest flash points 
On Wednesday May 11, Syria's third largest city Homs saw an escalation of military force against those participating in the unrest. Reports indicate that a number of people were killed in the ensuing violence and hundreds more were detained. The city's neighborhood of Bab Amro also reportedly underwent cuts to phone lines, electricity and water as tanks shelled the area. Homs has been the scene of some of the most serious unrest in the country in recent weeks. 
 
Later that night, international media reported that large numbers of protestors (perhaps in the thousands, but no media source could confirm) rallied on the campus of Aleppo University. Some suggest that the rally was the biggest orchestrated by students in the country thus far. It was allegedly dispersed by plainclothes security forces. A number of arrests were also made. 
 
According to international media, on May 11 Syrians fleeing violence in Tal Kalakh, a town on the Syrian side of the country's border with Lebanon and 45 kilometers from Homs, entered Lebanon only to be summarily rounded up and deported by Lebanese officials. The move prompted outcry from human rights activists who noted that most of those fleeing where either women and children or individuals who had been injured in violence on the Syrian side. However, many reports now indicate that there has been a significant influx of weapons into Syria from the same area and that black market selling of weapons in Lebanon has skyrocketed in recent weeks, with international sources reporting Syrians as principle customers. Local news agencies have also covered the influx of weapons into Syria from neighboring Lebanon.  
 
Serious violence continued throughout the week in the besieged border town, with deaths and casualties of military personnel and civilians reported by all sources. Three military men were killed in clashes on Sunday May 15, eight were killed on Tuesday May 17 while another five were injured, another five security personnel were killed today May 18.
 
Numbers of civilian casualties and fatalities are unclear, though international reports suggest they are likely in the dozens. To that end, on May 15 international media reported that one woman was killed and five others were injured when they were shot at while attempting to cross into Lebanon. A Lebanese solider was among those injured and international media report that the gunshots originated in Syria. The same reports also allege that over a dozen people had been killed in Tal Kalakh over the course of two days, at least seven of whom perished on May 15 as the Syrian military reportedly shelled the city.
 
Given the high number of military fatalities reported from the town, it is reasonable to believe that international reports that those participating in unrest in Tal Kalakh are peaceful and unarmed, are inaccurate.
 
On May 12, international sources reported that an estimated 24 protestors had been killed across the country over the course of protests on Wednesday and Thursday, including 13 in Hara, a small village outside of Daraa, six in Homs, and five in Jassem. Two Syrian soldiers were also reportedly killed. Mass arrests were also carried out in the suburbs of Damascus, most likely in an effort to stifle any attempts by activists to participate in after-prayers protests the following day.
 
On Friday May 13, irregardless of the mass arrests, communications blackouts and the heavy presence of military and security forces intended to quell unrest across the country, protestors nevertheless took to the streets. Their numbers had dwindled even more so than the week prior, but their brazenness was all the more apparent; many came out in cities that had been besieged by military forces only days before - Hama and three suburbs of Damascus, among them. Reports indicate that an estimated six protestors died in the unrest, including two in Homs. 
 
According to a statement released by the Syrian Interior Ministry on May 14, a total of 6,131 people "involved in riot acts" have voluntarily surrendered to authorities in order to gain amnesty for their actions. Syrian Minister of Islamic Endowments, Mohammad Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed also stated on Saturday that "Syria has overcome the conspiracy and crisis which hit it, thanks to the awareness of the Syrians and their standing by their leadership."
 
Local media also reported that "normal life returned to Daraa" on Sunday, as people went back to work and school and resumed shopping in the markets. Khalid al-Hanous, the governor of Daraa, came forward to state that "all the provisions and the basic services such electricity, communications and water are available" and that "the coming days will witness a huge activity to stress that the institutions retuned to play their role, in addition to opening new prospects of in-depth dialogue with all the bodies concerned to implement future plans".
 
On Tuesday, international media put forth reports of a mass grave allegedly discovered in Zemla Mohammad Sari Hill, an area just outside of the southern city of Daraa. The reports  state that the grave contains the bodies of an estimated 40 anti-government protestors, including those of women and children. According to activists, the bodies found in the grave had suffered from gunshot wounds. A graphic video of individuals unearthing the bodies was widely circulated across the internet. The Syrian government strongly denies all such reports, terming them "absolutely baseless".
 
The same day, Syrian protesters used their official Facebook page to call for a general strike today, May 18 terming it "a day of punishment for the regime by the revolutionaries an the people of free will." There were also attempted protests at Aleppo University on May 17.
 
Government reforms, efforts to mitigate tensions 
The Syrian government continues to move forward with reforms, though many find the pace at which it is moving to be slow. On Wednesday May 11, it announced plans to issue a draft bill regulating parliamentary elections within two weeks time. Prime Minister Adel Safar created a committee tasked with developing a bill to meet the "best internationally recognized standards". Many find the move insufficient, however, noting that the President and the Baath Party are the true holders of power in the country. For more details, see here.  
 
Syrian Minister of Information Dr. Adnan Mahmoud also made a statement on Friday May 13, indicating that in the coming days, all Syrian governorates will participate in comprehensive national dialogue. Dr. Mahmoud stated that the government is implementing comprehensive reforms and that "There is a correlation between security and stability from one hand and the reform from the other hand." He also reiterated that the government is working to pursue the armed groups responsible for the disruption of security across the country. Dr. Mahmoud indicated that the turmoil in Syria has led to the deaths of 98 security and military personnel, the injuring of another 1,040 others, as well as the deaths of 22 policemen and the injuring of 451 others. 
 
On May 15, a number of prominent dissidents detained following association with the protests throughout the country, were freed. Riad Seif, a well-known opposition figure and Catherine Talli, a rights activist were among those released. Activists allege that over 8,000 people have been detained since the start of the unrest on March 15.
 
The same day, the Ministry of Interior set forth instructions for Legislative Decree No. 54, the law that regulates the right to hold peaceful demonstrations. The instructions are comprised of 15 articles and define demonstration as a "peaceful gathering or walking of a number of people in a public place or road or near them for the purpose of expressing an opinion, demonstrating something, or affirming the execution of specific demands." No such demonstrations are allowed until the necessary approvals have been obtained. Those seeking to demonstrate must also specify the "goals, reasons, locations, line of movement, place of termination and time, in addition to stating the demands and slogans that will be used". Importantly, applications to demonstrate must be submitted a minimum of five days before the date of the demonstrations and in the event that applicants do not receive a response to their application within five days, the applicant can consider the request effectively approved. For more details, see here
 
On Monday May 16, President Bashar al-Assad held a meeting with a delegation from the Daraa governorate. The meeting covered ongoing reforms in Daraa and efforts to restore and maintain its security. 
 
The Ministry of Local Administration announced the same day that the Local Administration Law Amendment Draft is in development and will seek to create "qualified administrative units capable of planning, implementation and laying out development strategies related to local society" by "enhancing decentralization, putting management of local affairs in the hands of citizens and reinforcing democracy and partnership." 
 
The cabinet also approved a draft law on May 17 that reclassifies temporary employees on short-term contracts as fixed term, permanent employees where there are public sector job vacancies. It also agreed on a number of proposals intended to boost tourism in 2011 and improve agricultural output. 
 
United Nations & UN Human Rights Council
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) announced on Wednesday May 11, that it was suspending all of its operations for an estimated 50,000 people in southern and central Syria. The move was in direct response to recent turmoil in Syria. It will no longer provide services at its refugee camps in Homs and Daraa. The operations impacted by the UNRWA's decision include three health centers, 17 schools, a youth center, a women's center and two community centers. Chief among the organization's problems, was the issue of transporting necessities from Damascus to the country's hotspots. UNRWA also stated that even in instances where it was able to transport the necessary supplies, the security situation in the aforementioned cities left it unable to administer them.   
 
The Syrian government also officially withdrew its controversial bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday May 11.
 
On Thursday May 12, reports emerged that the UN Refugee Agency in Iraq had begun amassing hundreds of blankets, tents, and related supplies on Iraq's border with Syria, in anticipation of a mass out-flux from Syria of Iraqi refugees fleeing worsening violence in the country. The same organization has also stockpiled supplies that could help an estimated 30,000 Iraqi refugees on the Jordanian side of Iraq's border with the country. The government of Iraq has also expressed its willingness to charter flights from Damascus to Iraq to assist Iraqi refugees should the security situation deteriorate suddenly.
 
Finally, though President Assad had previously granted the UN aid workers access to troubled areas within the country, reports on Friday indicated such assurances were reneged. The Syrian government has also not yet responded to requests from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct a fact-finding mission within the country. 
 
Dorothy Parvaz
Al Jazeera came forward with information on May 11 indicating that its reporter Dorothy Parvaz, who had been detained immediately upon her arrival in Damascus on April 29, had been deported to Iran. Parvaz has triple citizenship in Iran, Canada and the US. She had apparently attempted to enter Syria on an expired Iranian passport, having insufficient time to obtain a proper journalist visa. On Tuesday May 17, both Syrian and Iranian authorities denied having any information about her whereabouts, though the Iranian Foreign Ministry did state that she had committed "violations" and it was "getting information about her status". Amid increasing international consternation of Parvaz's disappearance, the 39-year-old reporter was released from custody in Iran today, May 18. Reports indicate she is in good health. 
 
Further Reading:
 
"What Will a Post-Assad Syria Look Like?" - in Syria Comment - Joshua Landis  adopts a pessimistic outlook on the prospects for peace in Syria and puts forth useful background information on sectarianism, coups, military divides and outside influences in Syria. 
 
"Is This the End of the Assad Dynasty?" in Middle East Online - an article by Patrick Seale actually published over a week ago. Seale's analysis of the plight of the Syrian government is well worth the read.
 
"Starving the Rebellion: Syria's Brutal Tactics" - in Time - a take on the lives of some of those currently fomenting unrest in Daraa. 
 
"Bashar al-Assad: The Dictator Who Cannot Dictate" - in The Guardian - a scathing interpretation of the power dynamics within the Syrian government.
 
"Syria: An Inconvenient Revolution" - for PBS Newshour - a critique of Washington's assessment of the prospects for reform in Syria. 
 
"Clinton Contradiction" - in The Hindu - a summary of Washington's troubled approach to responding to Syria's unrest. 
 
"Brotherhood Raises Syria Profile: Islamist Group Tries to Organize Opposition to Assad Regime, as Protests Waver" in The Wall Street Journal  - according to the author, Nour Malas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is seeking to capitalize on the current deadlock between the protestors and the government to up its own political sway. 
 
Politics & Diplomacy
 
United States, Europe & Australia 
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made her harshest comments yet regarding the unrest in Syria on Thursday May 12. While on an official trip to Greenland, Clinton said of the Syrian government, "They engage in unlawful detention, torture and the denial of medical care to wounded persons. There may be some who think that this is a sign of strength. But treating one's own people in this way is in fact a sign of remarkable weakness." She went on to state that, "Relying on Iran as your best friend and your only strategic ally is not a viable way forward…The United States respects the right of these demonstrators to express themselves in peaceful marches…there should be no double standard. The Syrian government should grant all Syrians the right to express themselves peacefully."
 
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd called on the Syrian government to end its violent crackdown against the unrest in the country, calling the use of violence "deplorable". On May 13, Rudd stated that  “Australia calls on the Syrian authorities to immediately end all violence against civilians and to withdraw the military from the streets of Daraa, Homs, and other cities…We will continue to bring pressure to bear on the Syrian Government to end the regime’s completely unacceptable use of violence against the Syrian people.”
 
Meanwhile, the UK Foreign Offices political director informed the Syrian Ambassador Dr. Sami Khiyami, that the UK was considering implementing further sanctions against members of the Syrian government, if the government does not bring an abrupt end to the violence and immediately release the more than 8,000 political prisoners detained since the start of the unrest in mid-March. 
 
On May 17, British Defense Minister, Nick Harvey, informed British legislators that he believes the International Criminal Court would soon seek to charge President Assad in association with the recent violence across the country.  
 
On Tuesday, Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced that the EU and US will soon put forth new measures to respond to the turmoil in Syria. Clinton stated that, "President Assad talks about reform, but his heavy-handed brutal crackdown shows his true intentions." She continued, "We will be taking additional steps in the days ahead."
 
Ashton noted "how important it was to take this closing window of opportunity and change course…If the government really does ...want to see some kind of change, it's got to be now". She went on to state that, "We need to consider all of the options, and I think there will be a number of moves in the coming hours and days that you will see." The comments by both Clinton and Ashton mark a serious shift in the West's response to the crisis in Syria, leaving many wondering how far associated governments will go in their efforts to deter the Syrian government from further action. 
 
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
The US and a number of other western governments are urging the IAEA to charge Syria with endeavoring to build an undisclosed nuclear reactor.  The site of the alleged reactor in Deir ez-Zor was bombed by Israel in 2007. Syria has consistently denied all such accusations. 
 
China & Russia
On May 12, China made the unusual move of calling on the Syrian government to avoid the use of violence in dealing with the unrest. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said on Thursday, "Syria is an important country in the Middle East. We expect the country to maintain stability and urge related parties to iron out differences through political dialogue and avoid bloodshed."  She went on to advise that, "We think that outside forces should not intervene in Syria's internal issues so to avoid complicating the situation."
 
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came forward on May 13 to warn against possible foreign intervention in Syria. Lavrov expressed concern over the motives of those in Syria participating in the unrest with the expectation of foreign interference and likewise reiterated Russia's support for Syria. Lavrov stated, "We are very worried that the process of reconciliation, the process of the start of dialogue -- all healthy forces in Syria including the Syrian leadership are in favour of that -- is being slowed down by a desire of some participants to attract foreign forces to support their actions…The betting is that outside players will appreciate the problem and will not only discuss but also subsequently repeat the Libyan situation, for example, interfere using methods of force among other things…It is a great pity that the Libyan situation has created a huge temptation for many opposition members in that region to create a similar situation and expect that the West will not stand aside but will be interfering in the conflict in favour of one of the sides."
 
Lebanon & Israel
On Saturday May 14 Saad Hariri, Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister, requested that Lebanon's state-owned Higher Relief Committee work with the International Committee for the Red Cross to coordinate the provision of aid to Syrian refugees
 
Meanwhile, Sunday May 15 also marked the 63rd commemoration of the Nakba, or the displacement of the Palestinian people with the creation of Israel in 1948. Each year, the event draws demonstrators in Israel as well as the occupied Palestinian territories. This year's commemorations were particularly well-attended and face-offs between protestors and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), lead to the deaths of an estimated eight people in Maroun al-Ras on the southern Lebanese border and Beit Hanoun on the northeast edge of Gaza. Israel and the US government have accused Syria of encouraging Palestinian provocations of the IDF in an effort to draw international attention away from the growing crisis on its own soil. 
 
Security
 
A leaked UN document alleges that the organization has evidence that Iranian weapons prohibited from export under a number of UN Security Council resolutions, are nevertheless entering Syria. Iran has been subject to such bans since 2007 and apparently has succeeded in circumventing the restrictions. According the leaked document, "six out of the nine incidents of congenital arms transfers" by Iran went to Syria. 
 
Economic Development & Trade
 
On May 14, the Syrian Ambassador to India, Riyad Abbas, held a meeting with a number of Indian businessmen aimed at furthering potential investment opportunities in Syria. Delip Modi, Chairman of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) stated during the meeting that "Syria is past the events it has recently witnessed" while Abbas expressed Syria's strong interest in establishing joint projects between the countries. 
 
Energy 
 
A subsidiary of the Texas-based Improved Petroleum Recovery Group of Companies, IPR Mediterranean Exploration Ltd., is now set to drill four new wells in eastern Syria this year. The company has been drilling in Syria since 2010 through a joint venture with Al Rasheed Petroleum Co. Syria is aiming for increased foreign investment in the energy sector in a bid to stabilize its 2011 crude output at 386,000 barrels a day. At its peak in 1996, the country's output reached 583,000 barrels a day. 
 
Syria’s Public Establishment of Electricity for Generation and Transmission also opened bidding on May 17 for the design and construction of a substation in Al-Suweida in the Hassakeh province. Bids will be accepted until July 4. 
Written by: Evelyn Aissa
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