The Syrian Revolution
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In the face of growing international and local concerns of Syria’s potential slide into civil war, the Syrian National Council announced its official formation on Sunday October 2 in Istanbul, Turkey. With a broad base of support across the country’s disparate opposition groups, the Council’s formation marks a key development in the Syrian revolution, giving members of the opposition a representative body and the international community an official organization with which to meet. At the same time, hopes for a powerful international response to the violence that has shaken the country for almost seven months were severely dashed on Tuesday October 4, when Russia and China stepped forward to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution against Syria.
Protest & conflict flash points, security crackdowns
Though protestor numbers declined in the last week, thousands of members of the opposition still took to the streets after Friday prayers on September 30. An estimated 13 people were reportedly killed amid related security crackdowns. Protests were countrywide, with demonstrations held in Damascus, Hama, Lattakia, Daraa, Idlib and Homs.
On Saturday October 1, Syrian rights group reported that government military forces had retaken the town of Rastan after waging five days of intensive operations against members of the opposition – many of whom were reportedly military defectors. According to locals, land and cell phone services in the area where cut, and the highway connecting the area to Aleppo in the country’s north was closed.
Rights activists charged that an estimated 250 tanks were deployed to the area with a population of around 40,000. The same sources reported that around 130 people were killed during the ensuing conflict, including ten members of the Free Syrian Army – a band of defected soldiers who have taken up arms to fight against security forces, and at least 11 members of the Syrian military.
According to reportage by The Associated Press, Rastan was taken back under official control in part through mass arrests. Local Coordination Committees told the AP that somewhere between 500 and 3000 people were arrested in Rastan and subsequently detained in schools, a local sports facility and a cement factory. As with all such reports, the numbers are impossible to confirm.
On Sunday, foreign and local reports indicated that hundreds of government workers were sent into Rastan to clean up the town and rebuild some of the infrastructure damaged in the city during the conflict.
On Tuesday, international media reported that an estimated four people were killed during clashes between army defectors and the Syrian military in Jabal al-Zawiya. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one civilian and three soldiers died.
Spate of assassinations
On Wednesday September 28, Ous Abdel Karim Khalil, an engineer and nuclear physics professor was killed by gunfire outside of his house in the city of Homs. State media reported that Khalil was killed by an “armed terrorist gang”. Khalil was the fourth academic to be targeted and killed in the restive city in recent weeks. His death has sparked concerns that the country’s intellectuals are increasingly coming under attack.
On Sunday October 2, Sariya Hassoun, the son of Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun was also killed in an ambush whilst driving in a car to university. The professor he was riding with, Mohammad al-Omar, was also killed in the attack. Their deaths bring the total number of targeted assassination carried out in Homs in the last 10 days to six.
Sariya’s killing is among the most high-profile of the recent spate of assassinations. His father, Grand Mufti Hassoun, is the highest Sunni cleric in Syria and maintains strong relations with the Syrian government, his support for which has been unwavering since the start of the revolution.
On Monday, a televised funeral was held for Sariya, during which Hassoun denounced the opposition for creating an environment in which such killings could take place, and condemned Sunni clerics for issuing fatwas (religious edicts) sparking animosity toward him. “My brothers who were misguided and carried arms, you should have assassinated me because some clerics issued such fatwas. Why did you kill a young man who did nothing and harmed no one? Those who send weapons and money will not succeed in silencing the voice of righteousness of Syria,” the mufti continued.
Some members of the opposition blame the attack on “insurgents”, others attribute it to “rogue elements” in the protest movement and the government blames it on “a terrorist group”.
To read an interview by Nir Rosen with the Grand Mufti Hassoun, see here.
Concerns of Homs edging toward civil war
Some analysts argue that the surge of assassinations in Homs, highlights tensions between the city’s Sunni inhabitants, many of whom support the revolution, and members of religious minorities, whose political allegiances are more mixed. Many are concerned that Homs, as an ethnic and religious microcosm of Syria itself, serves as an indication of the country’s future – with sectarian tensions fueling hatred between those for and against the current government, pushing the country into full-blown civil war.
As analysts and activists have noted, a primary concern is that neither the opposition nor forces loyal to the current government appear prepared to back down from their respective positions. As the nonviolent element of the opposition is losing ground in the face of security crackdowns, more extreme elements are stepping in. If reportage is correct, it seems that army defections have increased in recent weeks – though by all accounts, numbers remain too low to pose a significant threat to the military. Yet, few believe the government will make difficult concessions to the country’s revolutionaries. This could lead the country down a path of protracted conflict.
Opposition formally establishes Syrian National Council
On Sunday October 2, members of the Syrian opposition formally established the Syrian National Council (SNC). The announcement came during a press conference in Istanbul, Turkey and marked the most serious step by far of the Syrian opposition to form a united front against the current Syrian government.
Burhan Ghalioun, among the SNC’s key figures (for more on Ghalioun see here), read the SNC’s founding statement during the conference, stating that the Council was dedicated to “achieving the wishes and hopes of our people in overthrowing the current regime”. Ghalioun continued, “I think that this Assad regime has completely lost the world’s trust. The world is waiting for a united Syrian opposition that can provide the alternative to this regime, so that they can recognize it. The Council denounces the regime’s policy of sectarian incitement … which threatens national unity and is pushing the country to the brink of civil war.”
The formation of the SNC is a critically important move, giving the Syrian opposition an official face and representatives. Importantly, the Council opposes any move to shift the current protest movement in a violent direction. The SNC is likewise firmly opposed to international intervention or military campaigns in Syria, though it does support efforts by the international community to “protect the Syrian people” from “the declared war and massacres being committed against them by the regime.” (To view the Council’s official website – in Arabic – click here.)
The SNC is comprised of a broad swath of representatives from the Syrian public, including secularists to Islamists. While activists had announced that the Council was in the making in September, they had yet to develop its goals and structure and likewise did not have support from all of the country’s key activists. As of Sunday, those issues had largely been tackled. The SNC’s membership now includes representatives from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, from the Damascus Declaration group, Kurdish groups, members of the Local Coordination Committees and a numerous other key figures and tribal leaders. It will have a general assembly of some 190 members who are set to be elected next month. Its general secretariat will include 29 members from seven different opposition groups.
The same day that Ghalioun read the SNC official declaration, his brother, niece and nephew were arrested in Homs.
Amnesty International report on intimidation of protestors overseas
On Tuesday October 4, Amnesty International released a new report, this time covering allegations that the Syrian government monitors Syrian activists overseas with the intent of intimidating their family members back home. The report, “The Long Reach of the Mukhabaraat: Violence and Harassment Against Syrians Abroad and Their Relatives Back Home,” details allegations of the monitoring of individuals protesting in front of Syrian embassies, as well as reports of activists receiving direct threats from Syrian authorities. The report spurred a great deal of related international reportage on the issue – see “Further Reading & Listening” section below.
On Tuesday October 4, Syrian state television broadcasted a video of a young woman who claimed to be Zainab al-Hosni. Just the week before, Amnesty International had put forth a report indicating that Hosni was dead, her dismembered body discovered in the morgue by her mother. The woman in the video held up her ID card and asserted that, “I came today to the police to say the truth. I am alive in contrast to what the lying satellite television stations had said.” Hosni’s reported death had stirred considerable local and international outrage. It has not yet been possible for other sources to confirm the validity of the October 4 interview.
International Politics & Diplomacy
US Ambassador attacked, Syrian Ambassador summoned
On Thursday September 29, US Ambassador Robert Ford and a group of US embassy personnel were attacked while in vehicles heading to a meeting with Hassan Abdul Azim, a well-known Syrian political figure. According to US Department of State reports, around 100 men threw rocks and eggs at the embassy vehicles. While the vehicles were damaged, no one was injured in the assault. This is the third such attack Ford has confronted in recent weeks. His increasing brazenness has improved his standing back in the US, where detractors in Washington – originally opposed to his then recess appointment – are now proclaiming that his in-country actions are working to demonstrate the US’s position on the Syrian government’s management of the unrest than. To that end, Ford’s position was unanimously confirmed in the US Senate on Monday, October 3.
In response to the attack, the Department of State summoned Syrian Ambassador to the US, Imad Mustapha. According to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, officials “read the riot act about this incident” to Ambassador Mustapha and reminded the ambassador “that Ambassador Ford is the personal representative of the president [Barack Obama] and an attack on Ford is an attack on the United States.” Nuland continued, “He was also asked for compensation for our damaged vehicles,” noting that “a very strong set of representations were made again about their Vienna convention responsibilities” to ensure the safety of US diplomats.
UN resolution on Syria fails
On Tuesday October 4, China and Russia vetoed a draft UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution against Syria put to the council by European states. The proposed resolution, which suggested that Damascus would eventually face UN sanctions, received nine votes in favor and abstentions from South Africa, Brazil, India and Lebanon. (To read the reasons behind India’s abstention, click here. For the UNSC’s official press release on the resolution’s failure – which includes explanations by each of the council’s members for their respective votes or abstentions, click here.)
The vetoing of the resolution by Russia China reportedly outraged European and US officials. Indeed, following the vote, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice walked out of the session in anger. Such walkouts are rare during UNSC meetings.
Rice has traditionally been an outspoke critic of the failure of major world players to intervene during humanitarian crises. In a statement following the vote, Rice stated that the time for the UNSC to adopt “tough targeted sanctions” against Syria was now. “The United States is outraged that this council has utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security,” she continued. In a veiled threat to both China and Russia, she went on to state, “Let there be no doubt: this is not about military intervention. This is not about Libya. That is a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”
Rice continued, “This is about whether this council, during a time of sweeping change in the Middle East, will stand with peaceful protesters crying out for freedom, or with a regime of thugs with guns that tramples human dignity and human rights. As matters now stand, this council will not even mandate the dispatch of human rights monitors to Syria – a grave failure that may doom the prospects for peaceful protest in the face of a regime that knows no limits.”
“In failing to adopt the draft resolution before us, this council has squandered an opportunity to shoulder its responsibilities to the Syrian people. We deeply regret that some members of the council have prevented us from taking a principled stand against the Syrian regime’s brutal oppression of its people,” Rice stated.
By the time it came to a vote before the UNSC, the resolution had already been significantly watered down by Council members.
Officials from France, the US and Britain all subsequently announced their intent to bring a new resolution before the Council as soon as possible.
Tensions between Hamas & Damascus
The Palestinian group Hamas, once a strong ally of Damascus, has refused to back the current Syrian government and its approach to quelling the country’s opposition movement. Hamas maintains headquarters in Damascus and relations between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Khalid Meshaal, the organization’s head have reportedly deteriorated in recent weeks. High-level members of the Baath Party accuse Hamas of hedging its bets, publicly stating that it would not take the side of the government nor the protest movement, but secretly channeling funds into organizations run by members of the opposition.
Meanwhile, a number of members of Hamas have said that contacts between Damascus and the group are effectively frozen as Hamas has chosen to “be with the Syrian people on this issue”. Hamas remains a key player in the resistance against Israel and has historically received strong support from Damascus. As membership in the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is a capital offense in Syria, Hamas’s connection to the group is a stumbling point for officials in Damascus.
In the face of growing tensions, Hamas has threatened to relocate its headquarters. For more, see here.
Swiss sanctions target Syrian oil, currency
On Friday September 30, the government of Switzerland imposed a new round of sanctions against Syria, this time banning investments in the country’s oil sector as well as halting the delivery of new bank notes and coins to Syria’s central bank. The Swiss Ministry of the Economy said of the sanctions, “It is now prohibited to approve lending or credit to any Syrian person or entity in the exploration, production and refining business of crude oil.” It continued, “It is also prohibited to delivery or sell to the Syrian central bank coins or new bank notes in Syrian currency.”
As there are no known Swiss investments in Syrian oil, the impact of the move is not expected to be significant.
Syria lifts import ban
On Tuesday October 4, the Syrian government revoked a ban against the import of a broad swath of goods that it had imposed only a week before. The ban covered cars and electronics, as well as some types of food items and most luxury goods. The ban, intended to protect the country’s foreign currency reserves, was met with domestic outrage. Implemented in the absence of any studies to determine its potential impact, it led almost immediately to a surge in the cost of goods. While Syrian officials maintain that the government has some USD 18 billion in reserves, it is impossible to verify that number and many had questioned the need for the a ban if such reserves do indeed exist.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set to impose sanctions against Syria
At a joint press conference with South Africa’s Vice President Kgalema Matlanthe on Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey will soon impose sanctions against the Syrian government. The details of the sanctions will be announced next week.
“We cannot remain a bystander to developments in Syria any more. Oppressed, defenseless people are dying in serious numbers. We cannot say ‘let these deaths continue’,” Erdoğan said during Tuesday’s conference. “We had a good friendship with Mr. Assad but we have to make sure our friendships are based on principles. If these principles are trampled upon, then we will leave those friendships behind,” he continued.
Further Reading & Listening
“Reporting From Homs Without Syria’s Knowledge” – National Public Radio – British journalist James Longman spent a few weeks covertly working in Syria. In an interview with NPR host Melissa Block, he discusses widespread concerns that Syria is slipping into civil war. He warns of the need to “be careful about…sensationalist” statements, asserting that in his time in Homs the people he encountered who had taken up arms or defected from the army, had not done so with the intent of waging war – but instead with the aim of defending the unarmed against military crackdowns.
“Key Syrian City Takes On the Tone of a Civil War” – The New York Times – Excerpts from the reportage: “The semblance of a civil war has erupted in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where armed protesters now call themselves revolutionaries, gun battles erupt as often as every few hours, security forces and opponents carry out assassinations, and rifles costing as much as $2,000 apiece flood the city from abroad, residents say….Analysts caution that the strife in Homs is still specific to the city itself, and many in the opposition reject violence because they fear it will serve as a pretext for the government’s brutal crackdown….Centuries-old connections between sects still knit together the city, even as the suggestion of civil war threatens to sever them forever. The countryside, residents say, is roiled by far more sectarian hatred. Government checkpoints separate Sunni from Alawite.” Importantly, many still maintain that the events in Homs are specific to the area and are not ‘predestined’ to occur elsewhere in Syria.
“The Cult: The Twisted, Terrifying Last Days of Assad’s Syria” – The New Republic – A controversial article by Theo Padnos in which the author puts forth his own interpretation of the “dark force in Syria” that is “not the Alawi religion” and not the “cult of Hafez al-Assad” but instead, the “excessive belief in this realm of unreality”.
Excerpt: “How is it possible to void an agreement one makes with the Assads? Much of the power of this agreement derives from the fact that it was never written down but rather exists only in the mind. It is also powerful because it insists that it never be spoken about. “Your eyes on the ground!”… It’s not so easy to repudiate what you can only feel. …Most of the demonstrators in the streets have never lived under any other dispensation. It’s not so easy to insist that the government give way to an alternate reality one has heard about from friends who went on an exchange program to Paris.”
“Saving Syria from Civil War” – Foreign Policy – Mona Yacoubian discusses approaches to avoiding the onslaught of civil war in Syria. An excerpt: “Pursuing the regime’s controlled collapse holds the key to saving Syria from sectarian civil war. This strategy should focus on prying Syria’s concentric military and economic power circles apart from the regime’s clannish core. A concerted campaign bent on altering the strategic calculus of Syria’s Alawite army generals and its Sunni business elite could prompt their decision to disavow Bashar al-Assad and his privileged cronies who comprise the heart of the regime. The isolation and demise of the Assads’ clique would then pave the way for Syria’s more orderly transition, avoiding the specter of civil war.”
“Syria ‘Is Heading for Financial Disaster‘” – The National – Damascus-based journalist Phil Sands covers the economic impact of the revolution, including sanctions against the Syrian government, the EU oil embargo, and Damascus’s approach to managing the country’s deepening financial woes. Of central concern is the newly delineated 2012 spending budget, which is set to increase some 58 percent from that of 2011. Local and foreign economists are wondering how such an increase will be funded.
“Revolt In Syria: An Alternative View From Iran – OpEd” – Iran Review – Maysam Behravesh assesses the regional dynamics at play behind the Syrian Revolution, including Saudi, Iranian, Turkish and Israeli interests and maneuverings. An excerpt: “It is greatly difficult to anticipate the future prospects of Syria’s Ba’athist regime. Whether Bashar Al-Assad will survive the uprising or the uprising will survive him, depends on the extent to which his government shows resilience and adaptability and accommodates change and power-sharing. But one thing is for sure, that the more the regime uses violence against civilian dissidents, the greater it exposes itself to instability and vulnerability… Systematic violence in the face of non-violent dissent can take its practitioner, which is usually the state, to a tipping point from which return might not be possible.”
“Economic Relations Between Turkey and Syria” – Today’s Zaman – A backgrounder on economic relations between Syria and Turkey for those looking to put Turkish sanctions against Damascus into perspective.
“For Syrian Activists Abroad ‘There’s No Turning Back‘” – The Daily Star – One of many similar articles filed by international media this week. Brooke Anderson covers the debate between Syrians living overseas regarding the risks and benefits of openly criticizing the Syrian government and expressing support for the opposition.
“As Violence in Syria Escalates, Will Many ‘Fence Sitters’ Back Opposition?” – PBS – An audio clip of an interview with National Public Radio’s Middle East correspondent, Deborah Amos, on the mass arrests in Rastan, the organization of the Syrian National Council, the issue of army defectors, and the likelihood of more people joining the opposition.
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