Syria’s Protest Movement
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On Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made his third address to the nation since the start of the unrest on March 15. The President attributed the country’s unrest to conspirators and proclaimed the economic crisis as Syria’s most pressing problem. Protestors continued to take to the streets throughout the week, irregardless of reforms either implemented or forthcoming. An estimated 24 died in anti-government protests across the country on Friday June 17. At the same time, hundreds of thousands came out in Damascus and a number of locations across the country on Tuesday June 21, in a show of support for the government. As the crisis stretches into the summer, Syria’s frustrated populace is becoming increasingly polarized.
Protest flash points
Friday ushered in more violence across Syria, as unrest flash points were met with heavy force on the part of Syria’s security forces. Activists put the death toll from the day’s turmoil at 24. Amateur videos leaked onto the internet suggest that security forces opened fire on children in Dael, a city in the country’s south. A 13-year-old boy was killed while another 16-year-old was critically wounded.
International reports also suggest that there was heavy gunfire amid protests in the central city of Homs. According to Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, the fatalities included five people in Homs, two in Deir ez-Zor in the country’s east, two in the Damascus suburb of Harasta and one in Douma – another of the capital’s suburbs, and two in Dael. International media also report that Aleppo, the country’s second largest city, saw the death of one protestor. Aside from sporadic university protests, Aleppo has been quiet as its wealthy and well-connected tradesmen and their families, have few incentives to take to the streets.
Foreign media also reported violence in the coastal city of Baniyas. Some sources report that an estimated 5,000 people took to the streets in Homs. Jableh in the west and Suweida in the south also saw protests, as did Lattakia, Qamishli, and Amuda in the north. The same reports allege that gunmen opened fire on a police station in Rukn al-Deen, a neighborhood in Damascus, killing a policeman. Another four were allegedly injured in the attack. Three other policemen were injured by gunfire in Qabboun, a neighborhood in Damascus. Local media report that a member of Homs security forces was killed in the unrest, while a number of officers were reportedly wounded in Deir ez-Zor.
Tanks and troops were reportedly deployed to Khan Sheikhun, a town in the country’s northwest. The army also allegedly waged an attack against Janudiyeh, a town only a few kilometers from Syria’s border with Turkey.
Reports continued to emerge across international media on Saturday, suggesting that security forces in the country’s north were continuing to carry out widespread house raids and according to some, summary executions of alleged dissidents. Though the accusations are grave and manifold, international media cannot confirm their accuracy. At present, more than 10,000 Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey.
On Sunday, international reports indicated that Syrian military forces had spread out along the edge of the country’s border with Turkey in an effort to stem the tide of Syrian refugees flowing across the border. Some activists alleged that security forces were waging attacks against those found to be helping the refugees escape. Ammara Qurabi, a Syrian human rights activist, stated that “The Syrian army has spread around the border area to prevent frightened residents from fleeing across the border to Turkey. Militiamen close to the regime are attacking people in Bdama and the surrounding areas who are trying to deliver relief and food to thousands of refugees stuck along the border and trying to flee.” Reporting sources were unable to confirm such allegations, though they are consistent with a broad swath of international reportage.
Reports also suggested that fields in the fertile north famous for its olive trees, apple orchards and wheat production, were set on fire – along with a number of bakeries in Bdama. At present, Bdama is among the principle suppliers of goods and food to those Syrians who have sought refugee on the Syrian side of the country’s border with Turkey.
The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and the International Federation for Human Rights both allege that over 130 people have been killed in the northern city of Jisr al-Shughour and its neighboring villages over the course of the last week, and that more than 2,000 others have been arrested.
Turkey extends aid across border
Turkey initiated its first cross-border aid campaign on Sunday June 19 by distributing humanitarian supplies to Syrians seeking refuge on their country’s side of the border with Turkey. Thousands of Syrians have congregated inside Syria along the border, stretching limited resources in host communities thin.
Mass grave, surrounding controversy
On Monday June 20, Syrian authorities released reports indicating that a new mass grave containing the bodies of security forces and police, was discovered in Jisr al-Shughour. The contents of the grave were unearthed before an audience of 70 foreign and Arab diplomats, as well as some members of the media. A tour of the gravesite, as well as of the largely deserted city, was organized by the Political Administration and the Foreign and Expatriates Ministry. According to a forensic examiner hired by the sate, Zaher Hajjo, the bodies in the grave were mutilated. The owner of a nearby quarry interviewed by SANA, Jamal Sleiman, explained that on June 6, his youngest son was asked to dig a hole by individuals who arrived in “a number of cars”. Once Sleiman’s son had completed the digging, “they brought out of the cars more than 20 bodies and buried them in the hole”.
The delegation that inspected the grave included US Ambassador Robert Ford. Ambassador Ford’s participation in what some call “a sanitized trip” to the country’s troubled north, sparked much controversy in the US; joining a government organized visit to ‘view’ the area was perceived to lend credence to the Syrian government’s take on the nature of the situation.
On Tuesday, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained that the trip enabled Ambassador Ford to “see for himself the results of the Syrian government’s brutality“. However, no residents were in the town to speak of their experiences. At the same time, given the stringent banning of all foreign media and outsiders from entering such areas, it remains unclear how else Ambassador Ford could assess the situation. In Nuland’s words, “This is a government that has not allowed … any of the domestic press, any of the foreign press into its country…This is a government that has closed off the Internet and tried to keep its own people from speaking out. So to go north to bear witness, to see with our own eyes what the results of this awful encounter were, has been valuable for us.”
Ambassador Ford assumed his position in Damascus in January, marking a shift toward engagement in US diplomacy with Syria. Republicans in the US have eagerly derided all aspects of US President Obama’s approach to managing US-Syria relations, noting that no concrete gains have resulted from the Ambassador’s appointment and instead, such diplomatic engagement serves as tacit approval of the Syrian government’s foreign and domestic policy. On Tuesday, Nuland defended Ambassador Ford’s appointment, explaining that “The fact that we have an ambassador there, the fact that we have somebody of such seniority, gives us the chance to make the point again and again…We stand with the side of those who want change in Syria.”
Syrian President’s national address
On Monday June 20 at Damascus University, President Bashar al-Assad made a long-awaited address to the nation – his third since the inception of unrest on March 15. The speech came two months after his last address to the Syrian public, during which time the country’s security and economic environment markedly declined. In his speech, which bordered on 11,000 words and ran 70 minutes, President Assad explained that he did not want his speech to function as a “platform for propaganda”.
On the results of the recent unrest, the President stated that “What happened was an unprecedented ordeal that overshadowed our country and led to a situation of distress, confusion, and frustration. This was due to riots, the killing of innocents, terrorizing the population, and sabotaging both public and private property.”
The President attributed the turmoil to conspiracy, noting that “I do not think there is a stage in Syria’s history where it was not the target of some sort of conspiracy, both before and after independence…Conspiracies are like germs, after all, multiplying every moment everywhere.”
President Assad also asserted that there are “three components” to the country’s current turmoil: “First are those who have demands or needs that they want the state to meet. I have previously spoken about rightful demands. This is one of the duties of the state towards its citizens; where it should work tirelessly in order to meet those demands to the best of its capacities….The second component consists of outlaws and wanted for various criminal cases who found in the state’s institutions an enemy and a target because they constitute an obstacle for their illegitimate interests and because they are sought by the state’s institutions… The third and more dangerous component, despite its small size, consists of those who have extremist and takfiri ideology. We have known and experienced this kind of ideology decades ago…and Syria was able to eliminate it thanks to the wisdom and intelligence of the Syrian people.”
President Assad addressed the issue of corruption, attributing it to “moral degradation, the spread of patronage and nepotism”. He called for the strengthening of institutions by “passing developed legislation and providing these institutions with officials capable of bearing responsibility” and noted that the Anti-Corruption Commission has been charged with identifying remedies for the problem.
The President also asserted that the National Dialogue Committee will “consult with different stakeholders in order to arrive at the best format which enables us to accomplish our reform project within a specific timeframe.” According to the President, in a matter of days the Committee will hold a consultative meeting with “more than a hundred personalities from different sections of the Syrian society” in order to set a foundation for ensuing dialogue. The Committee will draft a law that “will give the opportunity to citizens to elect the people who will represent them and represent their interests,” the President explained. He also noted that “we have started a large workshop in order to modernize the media, expand the scope of its freedom and strengthen its responsibility so they become a transparent medium of communication between citizens and the state.”
Addressing rampant criticisms of the rate at which reforms have been implemented, President Assad stated that “Some people believe that there is a certain degree of procrastination on the part of the state regarding political reform. In other words, they imply that the state is not serious about this reform. I want to stress that the reform process for us is a matter of complete and absolute conviction because it represents the interest of the country, and because it expresses the desire of the people, and no reasonable person can oppose the people or the interest of the country.”
Finally, in acknowledgment of the severity of the country’s economic crisis, the President stated that “The most dangerous thing we will face is the weakness or the collapse of the Syrian economy. A large part of the problem is psychological; and we should not allow fear or frustration to defeat us. We should defeat the problem by returning to normal life.”
Many in and outside of Syria maintain that President Assad’s speech did not adequately address the most pressing demands of those pushing for reform. Indeed, after the speech, international media reported that protestors rushed out to the streets in Hama, Homs, Lattakia, Idleb and even Damascus, calling for the fall of the government. Protestor banners reportedly read, “Bashar go away, the Syrian people want freedom,” “Homs pharmaceutical company presents, the best vomit-inducing medication: listening to Bashar’s speech,” “No to dialogue with murderers,” “We have one demand, that the regime is overthrown” and “God, Syria and freedom are all we need.” Such declarations stood in stark contrast to the only political slogan chanted in Syria for a decade prior: “God, Syria and Bashar – only.”
Massive pro-government rallies, ensuing clashes
On Tuesday June 21, pro-government demonstrators came out in massive numbers in a number of locations in the country – Damascus, most notable among them. The day before, MTN and Syriatel, the country’s mobile networks, sent out text messages encouraging Syrians to join the rallies. Indeed in Damascus, hundreds of thousands came out and while many maintain that this was a consequence of government pressure, it is clear that the President maintains a broad base of support in the country’s capital and in this regard, many maintain the country is becoming increasingly polarized.
International media reported that anti-government protests on the same day in Homs, resulted in the deaths of another four protestors. In Hama, a 13-year-old boy was allegedly shot and killed, while three others were killed in Deir ez-Zor’s eastern district of Mayadin. International reports allege that pro-government demonstrators clashed with anti-government protestors in a number of locations around the country.
Government reforms, efforts to mitigate tensions
On Thursday June 16, Syrian business tycoon Rami Makhlouf, announced his intention to extricate himself from the world of business to instead focus on charitable work. Makhlouf, the owner of Syriatel, one of the country’s mobile networks and the richest man in the country, is loathed by many in Syria. Just weeks ago, Makhlouf was on the receiving end of US sanctions. Many speculate that he has become a government ‘scapegoat’.
On Monday June 20, Syrian Prime Minster Adel Safar issued a decision creating an administrative council for the National Observatory for Competitiveness. The Council is charged with “suggesting the policies and strategies needed to improve the business and investment environment” in the country.
Prime Minister Safar also established a Committee to Study Costs of Strategic Projects, charged with evaluating the costs of major infrastructure and development projects. The Minister’s decisions come at a time when the country is suffering from a severe economic crisis as a consequence of the recent turmoil.
The same day, the government announced that it would publish the report of the committee tasked with “classifying corruption crimes and mechanisms of combating corruption” on Al-Tasharukia website with the intent of allowing citizens to review the report and submit their comments and concerns.
On Tuesday June 21, President Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 72, which grants general amnesty for crimes committed before June 20, 2011. The amnesty applies to chronically ill prisoners in addition to those held for certain types of offenses committed before June 20 – smuggling and theft among them. However, the amnesty does not apply to those engaged in the recent protests, thus meaning it did little to assuage current tensions.
Amnesty International issued a statement on the President’s latest decree, stating that the amnesty “falls far short of the political reforms called for by protesters” and calling for the trial and or release of all those currently held without charge in Syria.
Finally, the government also announced that it was posting a preliminary draft of the country’s proposed new political parties law on Al-Tasharukia website. The reported goal of the draft law is “for establishing a party away from any religious or tribal bases, gender or racial discrimination. The party formations, leadership and work should be according to a democratic basis, in addition to avoiding any public or secret, military or semi-military formations and not using violence or threatening of using it.”
International Committee of the Red Cross
On June 20, Prime Minister Adel Safar and Foreign Minister Wallid Moallem met with Jakob Kellenberger, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to discuss the country’s current crisis. During the meeting, the officials promised Kellenberger that Syria would increase the ICRC’s access to the country’s troubled regions.
Syrian opposition, formation of National Council
Syrian opposition also made a critical move on Sunday June 19, through the formation of a National Council comprised of dissidents both in and outside the country. The formation of the Council comes just a week after dissidents formed coordination committees in a number of Syria’s provinces. The formation of the Council calls into question the impact of any future reforms the government might choose to enact.
“Syria: ‘Now It’s Turned Out to Be a War’” – The New Yorker – One of the more interesting bits of journalism in recent days. Journalist Jonathan Stock snuck into Syria on a tourist visa and interviewed a number of people from Lattakia and Damascus. The content of the interviews covers allegations of outside interference and frustrated civilians with little to lose, taking up arms.
“Syria Stalemate Heads into the Unknown” – The National – An article by Phil Sands, one of the few foreign journalists still permitted to work in Syria, on the stalemate between the government and the country’s opposition forces.
“Complex Revolt Puts Syria at Crossroads” – Financial Times – The revolt in Syria is the most complex of those that have hit the Middle East in recent months.
“Syria: Cracks in the Armor” – Time – The authors, Rania Abouzeid and Near Khirbet al-Jouz, interviewed a Syrian soldier who defected from the military. The soldier puts forth troubling account of his experiences in Daraa and later Jisr al-Shughour.
“It’s Family Tradition: Brother, Cousins, In-laws Give Syrian Leader Many Hands in Crackdown” – The Washington Post – A look at the role of family in Syria’s current political and military dynamics.
“Syrian Dissidents Unite to Oust Assad” – Reuters – An interesting perspective on the country’s dissident movement that discourages the West from even pushing for further reform in Syria and takes a critical stance on the international community’s collective decision to ‘turn its back on the Syrian people.’
“Syria Eyewitness: Damascus Divided on the Assad Regime” – BBC – Interviews suggest that the perspectives in Damascus on the current crisis in Syria are diverse and increasingly divided.
“Syrian Representative Discusses Assad’s Speech” – NPR – An audio clip featuring Robert Siegel’s interview with President Bashar’s spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban.
“Two-Word Summaries of Bashar al-Assad’s Speech” and “Is Syria’s Assad Cracking?” – The Atlantic – The former offers up arguably comical interpretations of President al-Assad’s speech on June 20. The latter is a more serious take on the internal dynamics that likely motivated the President’s address. The author, Max Fisher, terms the speech a “desperate last-ditch effort to save an ailing regime” and details the country’s growing economic and security woes.
“Activists Using Video Bear Witness in Syria” – The New York Times – An account of how Syrian activists are using videos to document the country’s crisis.
“Despite Cohesion, Syria Regime Could Fall” – AFP – A review of various analysts’ perspectives on the likelihood of the Syrian government’s collapse.
Politics & Diplomacy
Condemnation of violence, possibility of war crimes
In a statement on Thursday June 16, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the US condemned the Syrian government’s “outrageous use of violence” against Syrian citizens. Specifically, Nuland stated that “The international community has been shocked by the horrific reports of torture and arbitrary arrests, and widespread use of violence against peaceful protesters…The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against peaceful demonstrators. This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.”
On Sunday June 19, officials in the Obama Administration indicated that the US was considering whether charges of war crimes could be brought against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The officials indicated that the US government was looking into whether legal action could be brought against the President and or members of the Syrian government and military.
On Friday June 17, Clinton also released an op-ed, “There is No Going Back in Syria,” in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. An exercise in heavy public diplomacy, Clinton used the op-ed to express the US’s support for the Syrian people and view that the situation in Syria has progressed far beyond the point of return to the status quo. In abbreviated form, the op-ed was as follows (for the full text, see here):
“As the violent crackdown in Syria continues, President Assad has shown that he is more interested in his own power than his people. … In his May 19 speech, President Obama echoed demonstrators’ basic and legitimate demands: the Assad government must stop shooting demonstrators, allow peaceful protest, release political prisoners, stop unjust arrests, give access to human rights monitors, and start an inclusive dialogue to advance a democratic transition. President Assad, he said, could either lead that transition or get out of the way.
It is increasingly clear that President Assad has made his choice. But while continued brutality may allow him to delay the change that is underway in Syria, it will not reverse it. …there should be no doubt about the nature of the protests in Syria. Like Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and others across the Middle East and North Africa, the Syrian people are demanding their long-denied universal rights and rejecting a government that rules through fear, squanders their talents through corruption, and denies them the dignity of having a voice in their own future. …
If President Assad believes that the protests are the work of foreign instigators – as his government has claimed – he is wrong. …President Assad is showing his true colors by embracing the repressive tactics of his ally Iran and putting Syria onto the path of a pariah state. … President Assad’s violent crackdown has shattered his claims to be a reformer. … If President Assad believes he can act with impunity because the international community hopes for his cooperation on other issues, he is wrong about this as well. He and his regime are certainly not indispensable. …
There is no going back. Syria is headed toward a new political order — and the Syrian people should be the ones to shape it. … the United States chooses to stand with the Syrian people and their universal rights. We condemn the Assad regime’s disregard for the will of its citizens and Iran’s insidious interference. … The United States will continue coordinating closely with our partners in the region and around world to increase pressure on and further isolate the Assad regime.”
Meanwhile, as the US continues to put pressure on the Syrian government whilst endeavoring to persuade the Syrian and broader international public that it has the interest of the Syrian people at heart, many are concerned that it could be headed on a path to war with Syria. The “Obama Doctrine” put forth in President Obama’s March 29 address pertaining to his decision to engage in military action in Libya, can be understood from his statement: “For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom. Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act. That is what happened in Libya over the course of these last six weeks.”
An arguably problematic doctrine that readily lends itself to the US military engaging in myriad conflict zones, a growing body of politicians and members of the US public are pushing for Obama to apply it to Syria. At the same time, many others are using the example of the US’s inconsistent response to the situation in Syria (as compared to that of Libya) to argue that it is time for a complete overhaul of US foreign policy – an overhaul that would take it in the direction of a retreat from its extensive engagement in trouble spots in Muslim countries.
On Thursday June 16, the European Union announced that it was moving forward with its efforts to impose a third round of sanctions against Syria. Just days later on June 21, the EU diplomats indicated that the UN would proceed with imposing new sanctions against Syria. The new sanctions will be officially imposed on Friday June 24 and reportedly will be imposed against a number of Syrian officials and entities, including four firms linked to the military.
The new sanctions are set to target another 12 European official and associated firms and entities. The EU has already imposed a travel ban and asset freeze against 23 Syrian figures, including the Syrian president himself. The EU also warned that it would seek even harsher measures if the violence in the country did not come to an end.
On Saturday June 18, British citizens in Syria were advised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to leave Syria as soon as possible. Specifically, the advisory stated that: “We advise against all travel to the Syrian Arab Republic. British nationals in Syria should leave now by commercial means whilst these are still available. Those who choose to remain in Syria, or to visit against our advice should be aware that it is highly unlikely that the British Embassy would be able to provide a normal consular service in the event of a further breakdown in law and order and increased violent civil disorder. Evacuation options would be limited because of likely communication and travel restrictions. This is because of continued violent disturbances in urban centres across the country, including the capital Damascus; military operations and clashes between protestors and security forces have resulted in a significant number of deaths.”
A number of European officials expressed disappointment in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s speech on June 20. EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton was among them, noting that “President Assad has to launch a credible, genuine and inclusive dialogue, and it’s up to the people of Syria to judge the willingness to reform. But I have to say at first glance, the speech today was disappointing.”
On Sunday June 19, reports emerged disclosing the content of a letter sent from Ankara to Damascus following the visit of Syrian special envoy, Hasan Turkmani, to Turkey last week. The letter to Damascus called for Maher al-Assad’s removal as the commander of Syria’s Fourth Division and Republican Guard. Mr. Assad is the widely feared brother of President Assad who has been blamed for much of the worst of the violent acts allegedly committed by military forces in Daraa, Homs, Baniyas and Idlib. The letter also urged Damascus to bring an end to the violence and announce a clear schedule for reform.
According to Turkish media, the Turkish government is concerned that the Syrian military will wage an attack against those seeking safety along the border. Such a move would render it nearly impossible for Turkey to maintain a comparatively unobtrusive presence in the area. Turkish political and military officials have made a number of high-level appearances in the border region in recent days, suggesting that Turkey will not turn a blind a to further violence.
For an interesting interpretation of Turkey’s foreign policy, particularly with regard to Syria, see here. The author, Bulent Kenes, maintains that as Ankara is unable to predict the outcome of the situation in Syria it oscillates between thinking that “Damascus is trying to gain time” and “Assad is sincere about his reform promises”. Ankara’s confusion is exacerbated by widespread belief that Iran is aiding the government in its current efforts to quell the unrest and an overall lack of clarity about the nature and intent of Syria’s opposition.
Finally, in response to President Assad’s speech on Monday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul stated that it was “not enough” and that the Syrian President should work to create a multi-party system in the country.
Clashes on Friday June 17 between rival groups in the Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli resulted in fatalities. The clashes began following a rally in Nour Square in Tripoli. In a development that does not portend well for the containment of Syria’s unrest, the rally was staged in support of Syrian anti-government protestors. Bab al-Tebbaneh is a Sunni stronghold while Jabal Mohsen is populated by Alawites. Tensions between the two communities are long-running. The clashes between the two groups resulted in the deaths of between four and seven, including a soldier and a young boy. Street fighters reportedly used assault rifles and grenades to attack each other. Another 48 people were wounded.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also made a statement on Thursday June 16 urging the Syrian government to end the violence. Ki-moon called on President Assad to “stop killing people” and instead “engage in inclusive dialogue and to take bold measures before it’s too late.”
On Monday June 20, INA – Industrija Nafte d.d. announced that it anticipates that its Hayan plant in Syria will hit maximum production in 2011. The plant produces liquefied petroleum and natural gas. According to INA’s interim Chief Executive Officer Zoltan Aldott, Syria’s current turmoil will not impact production.