Syria’s Protest Movement
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An extreme resurgence of after-prayers violence on Friday May 20, in conjunction with stalled government efforts to engage in constructive dialogue with members of the Syrian opposition, suggest few alternatives to a long, hot summer of continued tumult across the country. The US and EU have now both placed direct sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and US President Barack Obama has formally expressed the hardened view that President Assad must reform, or go. However, no such outside force appears to hold sway with the Syrian government. In the meantime as of Tuesday May 24, a well-respected rights group puts the civilian death toll since March 15 at a shocking 1,062 – a figure that does not include fatalities among Syrian security and military forces.
Protest flash points
In Tal Kalakh, five security personnel were reportedly killed amid continued fighting on Wednesday May 18. Local media ran a story describing how residents of the border town were living in fear as armed gangs wearing security uniforms and coming from neighboring Wadi Khalid in Lebanon, had stormed several houses and demanded that the residents obtain weapons for them.
International media have run a number of reports indicating that as the border city falls further under siege, the anti-government views of its unrestful inhabitants are solidifying. Many assert that they will not cease their activities until the government has fallen. In the words of one such activist – whose account of the turmoil inTal Kalakh could not be confirmed by the reporting media, “We used to demand freedom…But after we saw this freedom in the shape of tanks and terrorizing by the army, we will not accept anything less than him [President Bashar al-Assad] stepping down.”
Turbulence spiked again on ‘Azadi’ Friday (azadi is the Kurdish word for freedom) as increased numbers of protestors held after-prayers demonstrations in several cities across the country. Reports of fatalities vary widely, with state sources reporting that a total of 17 were killed – security forces among them, the Syrian Observatory for Human rights stating that 35 died and the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria reporting that 44 were killed.
In response to the day’s violence, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement saying: “After Friday prayers, a number of armed saboteur groups exploited a number of sporadic gatherings of protestors and the police’s commitment to not open fire to preserve lives, with these armed groups opening fire on policemen and vandalizing and burning public and private properties and a number of police departments in a number of areas.”
The worst of the day’s unrest occurred in Idlib, a province in the central region of Homs. Some international reports suggest that 30 people were killed there. There were also protests in Baniyas, Hama, Lattakia, Sanamin – a village near Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, Ariha, Midan – a neighborhood in Damascus, Damascus’s Old City, and Amouda. The same reports suggest that the protestor numbers might have reached 1,000 in Midan and 6,000 in Amouda – however, as all reports are unconfirmed, they are often subject to inaccuracy.
Some reports indicate that a young man in the eastern town of Mayadeen, set himself on fire on Friday in protest against the government. He had apparently been released from jail only a few hours earlier, where activists allege he was tortured and sexually abused. According to the same sources, he died in a hospital shortly thereafter.
While the protestors seem to have come out in greater numbers than two weeks ago, many activists expressed disappointment at the turnout and likewise expected more of Syria’s Kurdish population to take to the streets. This was in fact, the principle reason for terming the day with the Kurdish word azadi; organizers hoped it would spur further Kurdish participation. Thus far, protests in the Kurd-majority portions of the country have not seen much violence.
On Saturday, as a funerals were carried out in Homs for those who died in the unrest the day before, international media allege that Syrian security forces opened fire on funeral participants. Initial reports stated that five people were subsequently killed, though the following day, the number was raised to 11.
On May 22, further funeral marches in Homs evolved into political rallies. Residents of Bayda and Khaldiyah reportedly joined together to march to Tal Nasser cemetery. There was also reportedly a small protest in the coastal city of Lattakia, which has been largely quiet since fierce violence broke out there in April. International media also report that Ghabagheb, a village close to Daraa, also underwent security raids Sunday morning. Activists reported that in only three days, a total of 76 people were killed amid unrest.
On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, international media reported that there were further protests in Hama, Aleppo, Homs, and the Damascus suburb of Kaboun. The gatherings took place at night, an approach that protestors adopted with the alleged aim of attempting to exhaust Syrian security forces, who must remain on the streets 24 hours a day. To that end, there is no doubt that the recent unrest that has destabilized the country in the last several months has taken an extreme toll on the Syria’s security and military forces – particularly inexperienced youngsters.
According to the well-respected rights group, National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, the civilian death toll since the start of the unrest on March 15, now totals 1,062. This figure does not include deaths among members of security and military forces – a figure that many speculate could be in the high hundreds.
Though revolutionary unrest has spread across much of the Middle East since the beginning of the year, no country other than Libya has seen so many fatalities. In Egypt, the death toll before the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak reached 846. In Libya, thousands have perished. What makes the case of Syria particularly troublesome in comparison to its regional counterparts, is that both its population size and numbers of people participating in the unrest, are vastly smaller than those in Egypt. Egypt’s population totals about 80 million. Syria’s amounts to about 21 million. Millions of Egyptians took to the streets across the whole of Egypt. Syrian protestors are likely to have totaled around 150,000 and have never succeeded in rallying in huge numbers in either Damascus or Aleppo. The fierceness of the violence here, regardless of who it is attributed to, does not bode will for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
“Syria Comment” – Qunfuz – an important critique of Joshua Landis’s (the principle writer of Syria Comment) interpretation of the situation in Syria – particularly Landis’s recent posting that dismissed the protest movement in the country as fueled by sectarianism.
“Western Media Fraud in the Middle East: Too Many Journalists Report Official Narratives of the Powerful, Missing the Stories of Working Class People” – Al Jazeera – A worthwhile read for all relying on Western media to make sense of the recent unrest in Syria, as well as in the region at large. The author, Nir Rosen, is an Iranian-American with years of experience reporting on conflict and events in the region. His perspective sheds light on the biases inevitably inherent within most such reporting.
“Welcome to Bashar’s Syria!” – The News: International – A bitter (and unfortunately not particularly well-written) account in a Pakistani paper by activist Maryam Hasan, of her view of the sacrifices made for the maintenance of security in Syria. Hasan emphasizes the manner in which the unrest and violence in particular parts of the country, impacts its agricultural production, food production, industrial activities, employment of temporary workers, cultural life and overall intellectual capital.
“Protester Who Exposed Lies at the Heart of Syria’s Regime: Ahmad Biasi Risked His Life to Reveal State Violence.” – The Independent – An account of the activities of a young Syrian activist who many now call one of the heroes of Syria’s unrest.
“Old Divisions Threaten Moves Toward New Identities: Sects, Clans are Beginning to Drift Apart” – The Boston Globe – How fears of insecurity and of fellow citizens, have been propagated to guarantee support for strong governments across the region. Though revolutionary unrest across the Middle East has awakened potential for solidarity among citizens, pervasive violence threatens to break new bonds.
“Dorothy Parvaz: Inside Syria’s Secret Prisons” – Al Jazeera – Dorothy Parvaz, the Al Jazeera reporter detained upon her arrival in Damascus on April 29 and released on May 18 after being deported to Iran and held there for a number of weeks, offers a harrowing account of her time in prison in Syria.
“Syria Does Not Believe in Barack Obama” – Time – The harsh words of US President Barack Obama in his address on May 19 have fallen on deaf ears.
“Protests in Syria: Not Over Yet” – The Economist – A closer examination of the motives of some of the protesters out on the streets of Syria’s third largest city, Homs.
“Stories of Syria’s Crackdown Seep Across the Border” – NPR – Accounts of life in Daraa trickle across the border into Jordan and reveal the hardening sentiments of the city’s anti-government protestors.
Politics & Diplomacy
On Wednesday May 18, the US imposed sanctions against President Assad as well as a number of other officials in the Syrian government, including Vice President Faruq al-Shara, Prime Minister Adel Safar, Interior Minister Mohamad Ibrahim al-Shaar and Defense Minister Ali Habib Mahmoud. The Obama Administration had been reluctant to make such a move given the US President’s recent efforts to engage Syria in increased dialogue. Obama is facing growing pressure to up his response to the situation in Syria, with many conservative opponents calling upon him to recall the recently appointed US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.
In response to the US imposition of sanctions against the Syrian president, official Syrian sources stated that, “These measures are part of a series of sanctions imposed by the successive US administrations against the Syrian people in the framework of their regional plans, particularly in terms of serving the Israeli interests…These measures have not influenced and will not influence Syria’s independent decision or its steadfastness against the American repeated attempts to dominate its national decision, nor will they influence its determination to achieve comprehensive reform.”
On Thursday May 19, US President Barack Obama made a much awaited address on the issue of US Mideast policy. In it, he asserted that in the US’s view, President Assad must make the necessary reforms or, step aside: “The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests. It must release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests. It must allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and will continue to be isolated abroad.”
Following Obama’s speech, Hillary Clinton did an interview with CBS News on the crisis in Syria. Her statements shed more light on White House’s position on the situation in Syria: “I think we also know that there are many different forces at work in Syria, like in so many of the countries in the region. And we think it would be better if the people of Syria themselves made it clear to Assad that there have to be changes. And part of what the President – our President – Obama was doing today, was to say, “Do you want to end up like Iran, Syria? And President Asad, do you want to end up like a leader of a country that is further and further isolated?” So each of these situations has to be carefully calibrated, and I think the President got it just right.”
Regarding whether or not the US would pursue “regime change in Syria” (as put by Clinton’s interviewer Katie Couric), Clinton stated that, “What we are doing is exactly what President Obama said: Either you lead the transition or get out of the way. How that happens is up to the people of that country.”
On Friday, Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During the meeting, Obama conceded that Syria was of “acute concern” for both the US and Israel and detailed the “significant steps” the US was taking to respond to the violence in Syria.
On Friday May 20, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the Canadian government was exploring options for imposing sanctions against the Syrian government. In an official statement a spokesperson for Harper said, “The actions of the [Syrian] government are simply unacceptable.” The spokesperson also stated that the Canadian government is “deeply troubled” by recent events in Syria.
On Monday May 23, the EU announced that it is imposing direct sanctions against President Assad, as well as a number of other important Syrian officials. UK Foreign Secretary stated that, “The repression in Syria continues…It is important to see the right to peaceful protest, the release of political prisoners and taking the path of reform, not repression, in Syria over the coming days.” On the Syrian government, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also stated that “The government needs to understand that people are asking by peaceful protests for the kind of reforms that the government had said they’d be interested in and they now ought to try and engage properly and do that…And they should do it now because there are so many people who have died and been injured. It’s a terrible tragedy.”
Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem responded to the EU’s measures by stating that, ”History repeats itself. They are inciting violence and persistence of the crisis. They hinder the Syrian government’s measures to improve the living standards of citizens through a series of economic procedures, which harms the Syrian people…Because Syria is the ”hard number” in the face of their plots and the Israeli expansionism.” Moallem went on to state that, ”Europe needs us just as much as we need it…Like the US, Europe is not the whole world.” Specifically, he asserted that ”pressure has no effect on Syria which is impervious to pressure. Syria can never be but an independent country with an independent decision.”
The Swiss government also announced last week that it was following in the path of the EU and imposing an arms embargo against Syria as well as travel bans and assets blocks Syrian officials and prominent figures.
Russia & Turkey
At a conference on Wednesday May 18, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated that Russia will not endorse a UN Security Council Resolution imposing sanctions against Syria, as he believes that Syria must be granted more time to move forward with reforms.
Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that President Assad should remain in power, but take immediate steps to enact democratic reforms. The Turkish government is deeply concerned about the security situation in Syria, as any conflict in the country would be quick to spread into Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel. Further, in recent years Turkey has made serious efforts to shape its foreign policy around a “zero problems” approach to dealing with its neighbors. Syria and Turkey, enemies not too long ago, have seen a strengthening of their political and economic ties. Further, Erdogan is personal friends with President Assad. The crisis in Syria throws all such relations and efforts into the air – marring Turkey’s efforts to be leader of constructive relations between states in the Middle East and indeed the world more broadly. Turkey is not alone in its quandary, as the violence in Syria has also left the US and a number of big players in Europe in an impossibly awkward position; many such leaders had ventured a lot of personal political capital on efforts to paint the Syrian government in a reformist light and bring the country out of relative seclusion following decades of isolation.
On Thursday May 19, the MP of the Lebanese Future Movement, Ahmad Fatfat said that while unlikely, Syria might use its military to interfere in Lebanon. Fatfat stated that, “Syrian allies in Lebanon [March 8 members] are insisting on accusing the Future Movement in the ongoing events in Syria … Syria might take advantage of that and intervene militarily in Lebanon.” The government of Syria has accused the Future Movement of bankrolling members of the Syrian protest movement. Fatfat accused the state-run Syrian media of “attempting to distract from what is going on inside Syria away from the popular uprisings. Syrian President Bashar Assad [even] admitted the uprising was aiming at reforms.” He went on to state that, “The Future Movement is not part of the Syrian conflict and Syria’s stability is of great concern to us.”
Kuwait was elected to the UN Human Rights Council on May 20 following Syria’s decision to drop its bid for the seat. On Sunday, Kuwait also declared that it is banning nationals from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan from entering the country. The ban includes visits pertaining to tourism and trade, as well as visas sponsored by spouses. According to Kuwaiti media, the decision was based on growing concerns that nationals from such countries would seek to foment unrest and insecurity within Kuwait whilst escaping from unrest in their own countries. For more details, see here.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
On Wednesday May 18, international media reported that IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen made a statement regarding the bombed site of Syria’s alleged nuclear reactor indicating that, “Satellite imagery, procurement and infrastructure information tend to point (in the) direction that the destroyed building at Dair Alzour was, indeed, a nuclear reactor at an advanced state of construction.” Heinonen also stated that the organization believes that Syria had been moving forward with its nuclear activities with the help of North Korea. The IAEA will hold a governing meeting in June of this year, during which many expect it to refer the issue to the UN Security Council for possible punitive actions.
Economic Development & Trade
One of the few certainties of the recent turmoil in Syria, is its devastating impact on the country’s economy. Tourism has come to a complete halt, foreign investment has faltered and Syrians – profoundly worried about the country’s prospects for peace – have stopped spending money. Businesses are laying off employees and stores are closing as many lack the financial reserves necessary to carry on in such volatile circumstances. As the economic situation worsens in response to the unrest, the crisis runs the risk of becoming self-perpetuating; abysmal economic conditions were among the protest movement’s original catalysts.
Silverleaf nightshade, an invasive alien weed, is reportedly threatening both wheat and cotton crops in Syria and Iraq. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that it will soon spread to Jordan and Lebanon. In Syria, the FAO reports that more than 60 percent of the country’s cotton and wheat crops have been infested with the weed. Silverleaf nightshade is an agricultural killer, starving desired crops of water and nutrients.
On May 23, the vice president of Azerbaijan’s State Oil Co., Elshad Nassirov, stated that unrest in Syria might impact the construction of natural gas pipelines from Azerbaijan to Syria. Nassirov stated that “The implementation of these plans will depend on the developments” in Syria. The construction of the pipeline was scheduled to be completed by the end of 2011.