Syria’s Protest Movement
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The death toll from the unrest in Syria now exceeds an estimated 1,400. Tensions across the country continue to mount as talk of sectarian strife and impending civil war increasingly dominate local and international commentary on the crisis. Growing numbers of Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey, with official Turkish estimates putting the figure at around 8,500. Many fear that tensions between Syria’s religious communities, which have lived in relative balance for decades, will seep into Turkey and Lebanon, thus catalyzing the large-scale destabilization of the surrounding region.
Protest flash points
On Wednesday June 8 in Sha’alan, an upscale district of Damascus, protestors organized a demonstration – a rare occurrence in central Damascus. Though they were quickly dispersed, an estimated 300 demonstrators took to the streets. Hundreds of other protestors rallied in the town of Jeeza, after the body of another boy allegedly arrested at the same time as Hamza Ali al-Khatib, was returned to his family. His body showed signs of severe torture, though no such allegations can be confirmed. The boy, Thamer al-Sahri, is one of over 70 children who have reportedly died in Syria as a consequence of the country’s worsening tumult.
June 10, termed “Friday of Tribes” by protestors, pushed the country even deeper into crisis. Protests were reportedly held in a staggering 138 cities and towns across the country, Izram, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, Lattakia, and Homs among them. In Homs, tanks had been in position since June 8 as the city braced for more unrest. Live ammunition was allegedly used against protestors there on Friday.
Some international reports suggest that Syrian security forces are becoming increasingly impudent. Video footage – all unconfirmed – of blindfolded protestors being beaten and stomped on in a number of locations has run rampant across international media – all painting a rapidly deteriorating picture of the country’s security environment.
Two protestors were reportedly killed in the southern town of Bosra al-Harir. Another eight were allegedly wounded by live ammunition in Daraa. In Jisr al-Shughour, military forces used helicopters and tanks to shoot at those allegedly participating in the unrest. Some estimate that over 25 were killed in the city that day, though no reports could be confirmed. According to a number of international reports, some 15,000 troops and 40 tanks have been deployed to the city and surrounding region. In total, over thirty people were reportedly killed across the country in Friday’s violence.
Protests and violence continued on Saturday, with more Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey. Reports of the violence in Jisr al-Shughour as put forth by the refugees, suggested that military forces set fire to farmlands in the region, and though the government has amassed huge numbers of forces in and around the city, it had not yet waged a full-fledged assault.
The situation changed on Sunday, however, when according to international media, the Fourth Brigade was sent in to quell the unrest. The city was reportedly surrounded by tanks and helicopter gunships were used to confront armed locals who had allegedly formed ‘an alliance’ with the members of the military who had previously defected. It was and remains impossible for reporting sources to confirm these charges.
By the end of the day Sunday, reports suggested that the situation in Jisr al-Shughour had returned to ‘calm’ with much of the city reportedly abandoned. At present, local media are also reporting that the violence in the city is over and that some residents who sought refugee in Turkey, have begun returning.
International reports on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, suggested that Syrian military had ‘fanned out’ across the country’s northern regions, employing a ‘scorched earth policy‘ to stifle any lingering unrest.
A mass grave with the bodies of a number of uniformed members of security forces was also recovered in Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday, hinting at the severity of the previous days of turmoil.
Thus far, over 1,400 Syrians have died as a consequence of the country’s recent crisis.
Allegations of defection
According to the Local Coordination Committee, the organization that documents the country’s unrest, 15 Syrian soldiers defected and joined the ranks of the protestors in Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday June 11. Accounts of defections in the military are rampant (this is one such example, here is another), though no reports suggest that those who have defected are large in numbers or high in rank.
A number of international reports likewise continue to allege that the over 120 military men reportedly killed in Jisr al-Shughour, were shot by security forces for refusing to follow orders to shoot on unarmed protestors. Such accusations, however, remain impossible to substantiate and the Syrian government adamantly rejects all such allegations.
Syrian refugees in Turkey
Throughout the week, ongoing violence in Jisr al-Shughour and the specter of its marked increase prompted thousands of Syrians to continue fleeing across the country’s border with Turkey, while thousands of others congregated on the Syrian side of the border. On Thursday June 9, official Turkish estimates put the total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey at 2,700. However, by Saturday that number had climbed to 4,300 and at present, the number has risen to over 8,500 – more than half of whom, are reportedly children. The refugees allege that protests had initially been organized in Jisr al-Shughour to demand improved economic conditions.
On Wednesday June 15, Turkish aid workers focused on constructing new tent cities. Nearly all of the refugees are located in the border province of Hatay. Jisr al-Shughour is approximately 40 kilometers from Syria’s border with Turkey. In the tent cities on the Turkish side of the border, refugees are provided with food and children are offered mental health support.
As the situation across the country worsens, fears of sectarian strife and civil war continue to spread. While some maintain that such fears have been encouraged by the government and are not grounded in reality, a broad number of reports suggest that the concern is an increasingly relevant one.
The population of Jisr al-Shughour, for example, is predominantly Sunni and known for its conservatism and resentment of the government. In the 1980s, along with the central city of Hama, the area came under attack by the Syrian military as the government sought to rid it of its extremist elements. Its inhabitants took up arms, putting up a strong fight. Next door, lies a region of the country inhabited by a large portion of Syria’s Alawi people. Tensions between the communities are not new and many speculate that the severity of the crackdown against the population of Jisr al-Shughour has roots in sectarian tensions.
The international media, however, is also troublingly careless with such accusations, often for example, sloppily equating Alawites with the nefarious ‘Shabbiha’ or making sweeping generalizations about the ‘collective sentiments’ of the country’s various religious sects.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
On June 10, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) demanded “immediate access” to the areas of Syria fraught with violence. President of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, stated that “Despite repeated requests to the Syrian authorities, we have not been granted meaningful access to those in need. We are determined to assist people who are having to cope with the violence.” Kellenberger went on to state that he was willing to go to Damascus to hold meetings with relevant authorities. The ICRC has been granted occasional access to the country’s flash points, however, according to Kellenberger, “they [the visits] were so short that we were not able to really know what was going on or the real magnitude of the problems.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the Syrian government on June 10 to grant a UN fact-finding commission access to the country’s troubled regions and end the violence against those participating in the unrest. Pillay stated that, “In my view, this is nothing more than a government waging a war on its own people, people who are asking for fundamental human rights that are accepted in most democratic countries. They should be responding to those calls for ending corruption, a greater say in government and rights. Instead the government has unleashed a highly cruel and vicious violence against its people.” Pillay also asserted that the Syrian government is working to “bludgeon its population into submission” and urged the “government to halt this assault on its own people’s most fundamental human rights. We are receiving an increasing number of alarming reports pointing to the Syrian government’s continuing efforts to ruthlessly crush civilian protests.” Pillay is a former UN war crimes judge.
Government reforms, efforts to mitigate tensions
On Monday June 13, SANA reported that the Syrian government had imposed a travel ban on Brig. Gen. Atef Najeeb. Najeeb had run the security department in the southern province of Daraa. According to Judge Mohammed Deeb al-Muqatran, Chairman of the Special Judicial Committee, “no one has immunity, whoever he is.” The travel ban is reportedly a “precautionary measure” to ensure that Najeeb is available for questioning.
“Translating Human Suffering” – The Huffington Post – arguably one of the saddest of recent articles covering the issues reportedly driving some Syrians out of the country and in this case, into Jordan. The author, Hani Hazaimeh, took a job with Human Rights Watch in the spring and soon found himself in Ramtha translating interviews with Syrian refugees who had fled the country’s violence. The author describes the content of the interviews as well as the difficulty of ‘passive listening’.
“Patrick Seale: Journalist and Syria Expert” – DayPress News/Syria Today – an unusually balanced take on the situation in Syria.
“In Syria, We Need a Revolution in Our Heads” – The Guardian – an article by Imad al-Rasheed, placing part of the blame for the country’s current turmoil on Arab intellectuals, who Rasheed maintains have in some cases, put forth the intellectual discourse necessary to back the status quo.
“The Syrian Conflict: Confusion Central” – Time – a telling and intermittently amusing article by Bruce Crumley, summarizing international confusion surrounding the events in Syria.
“Inside Syria’s Slaughter: A Journalist Sneaks into Daraa, the ‘Ghetto of Death’” – Time/Le Monde – an article by a journalist who snuck into Syria on tourist visa. The reporter, Christian Clanet, interviewed a number of dissidents in Daraa, one of whom spoke on the topic of alleged defections within the Syrian army.
“Syria’s Ruling Alawite Sect” – The New York Times – a backgrounder on the Alawi people covering components of recent and far history. In the last several paragraphs, the author highlights an issue raised in this 2006 blog post on Syria Comment: “What do Sunnis intend for Alawis following regime change?”
“Syria is in Defining Moment for Arab World: Analysis by Paul J. Sullivan” – Al-Arabiya – Sullivan offers up a concise assessment of Syria’s relations with its neighbors and overall regional significance.
“How Banned Foreign Journalists are Covering Syrian Refugees” – The Atlantic – a collection of video clips and commentary regarding Syrian refugees in Turkey. The first clip put forward by CNN’s Arwa Damon, “Dire Conditions for Syrian Refugees” arguably exemplifies the manner in which the international media, eager to report on the situation in Syria, often goes over the top in its efforts to ‘shed light’ on the crisis.
“Analysis: Civil War Fears Grow in Syria” – Reuters – As weeks of unrest have stretched into progressively worsening months, the country is rife with talk of sectarian conflict and civil war.
Politics & Diplomacy
On Friday June 10, White House press secretary Jay Carney, made a statement indicating that Syria is on a “dangerous path” and that the US vehemently condemns the Syrian government’s “outrageous use of violence”. The following day, the White House released a statement accusing Syria of creating a “humanitarian crisis” through its management of the country’s unrest. The statement said, “The Syrian government’s offensive in northern Syria has created a humanitarian crisis. The United States calls upon the Syrian government to stop this violence, and to give the International Committee for the Red Cross immediate, unfettered access to this region. If Syria’s leaders fail to provide this access, they will once again be showing contempt for the dignity of the Syrian people.”
On Sunday June 12, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague made a statement indicating that he was “deeply concerned by the very serious situation in Syria” and that violence in the country was “unacceptable and must stop“. Hague went on to say of the UK, that “We will continue to work with our international partners, including in the UN, to condemn the repression in Syria and call for the Syrian government to meet their people’s legitimate demands.”
In a statement to Sky News earlier on Sunday, Hague had noted that close ties between Syria and Lebanon rendered it impossible for the latter country to take a firm stance on the unrest. He also clarified that there was “no prospect” for the UN to authorize air raids in Syria. Finally, on the issue of the UN, Hague stated that, “I do believe it is time for the Security Council to make a clear statement of the kind that we’re advocating.”
Just two days earlier, France issued a travel warning for Syria indicating that French citizens without “imperative reasons” for remaining in the country, should leave.
The Western world has struggled to respond to the situation in Syria as the unpopularity of its recent military actions in Libya, combined with economic constraints and fears of the complexity of the crisis in Syria producing ‘another Iraq’, leave it ill-positioned to adopt a firm line against the Syrian government. See the following for further commentary on the ‘declining power of the West‘, its growing interest in relying on Turkey to clean up the mess in Syria, and fears of the economic cost of yet another military campaign in the region.
As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, Turkey is left managing much of the fallout. Throughout the week, international reports suggested that the growing numbers of Syrian refugees in Turkey were prompting a spike in local religious and racial tensions. On Wednesday June 15, Samandag, a town in the Turkish province of Hatay, saw rallies by the local Alevi community. The Alevis have links to Syrian Alawites and those who protested were allegedly rallying against Turkey allowing predominately Sunni Syrian refugees into the country. The protestors shouted slogans in support of the Syrian President and expressed anger toward those in Syria who were participating in the unrest. The rallies prompted much concern that balance between Turkey’s own religious communities would be disrupted as a result of the tensions in Syria. According to international media, Syrian refugees in Hatay are not permitted to mix with locals and instead are kept within their own ‘tent cities’.
Over the weekend, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party succeeded in winning a near 50 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections held on Sunday. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a highly successful politician who has succeeded in improving the country’s economic conditions, has been under considerable pressure from Turkish opposition to take a firmer stance in response to the situation in Syria. Last week, Erdogan accused the Syrian government of committing an “atrocity” against Syrian protestors. In the days that followed, however, his tone shifted quite markedly, as he urged President Bashar al-Assad to “refrain from violence and end the unrest“, noting that “it would be useful to draw up a timetable of reforms as soon as possible and urgently implement them.” He also reiterated that, “We will in no way close our doors to our Syrian brothers… but we wish that a [reform] process that would prevent a continued and growing wave of refugees is launched in the shortest possible time.” Many analysts, however, remain skeptical of Erdogan’s ability to influence decision-making in Damascus.
On Wednesday June 15, Erdogan was set to hold talks with special envoy of President Assad, Hassan Turkmani, in an attempt to ‘refresh’ pressures on Damascus to move forward with rapid and genuine reform.
On Tuesday June 14, international media reported that certain members of the Arab League had proposed suspending Syria’s right to participate in the League’s meetings, in protest against the recent violence in Syria. A number of other members, however, appear to be opposed to such measures.
International Atomic Energy Agency
On Friday June 9, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted to send Syria to the United Nations Security Council, in response to its alleged efforts to construct a nuclear weapon facility. The facility in question was destroyed during an Israeli air raid in 2007. The IAEA’s decision is considered a huge victory for the US, which has pushed for such a decision for a number of years.
Border with Jordan
On Wednesday June 15, the Syrian government reopened its border with Jordan near the previously besieged southern city of Daraa. The border had been closed for more than two months.
Last week, the government announced plans to solicit bids beginning next year for a number of solar and wind power projects. According to the Electricity Ministry, the country intends to spend 7.61 billion between 2011 and 2015 on new power generation and distribution facilities. Demand for electricity in Syria is growing annually by between five and seven percent thus meaning that the country needs to add an estimated 700 megawatts a year to its supply.
On June 12, the government also announced plans to construct a 750 megawatt power plant in the coming two months in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. The Electricity Ministry also intends to restore aging power networks and transformer stations in the region.