Mandate of Arab League Observer Mission Ends, Syrian Pound Plummets to Record Low
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The mandate of the Arab League’s observer mission in Syria came to an end today amid widespread frustration by all sides. The mission is set to release a report on its findings within the next 48 hours, after which, League officials will convene to discuss both the findings and a way forward. The lack of a consensus at numerous levels with regard to how to bring an end to the current violence and the stalemate between the government and the opposition, has intensified in the face of worsening security conditions. On Thursday, the Syrian pound hit a six-year low of 71 to the US dollar, losing a third of its value and serving as troubling indicator of the spiraling cost of the country’s current crisis.
The Syrian Revolution
Protests, security crackdowns, clashes
On Friday January 13, some 15 people were reportedly killed in violence in Homs, Zabadani, and the suburbs of the capital Damascus. In Zabadani, a town not far from the country’s border with Lebanon, local activists reported that the town was bombarded by tanks and military forces. The same sources reported that government forces were encountering armed resistance in the area, where the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is said to have a strong presence.
The same day, international media reported that thousands took to the streets in Aleppo, Deir ez-Zour, Hama, Homs, Idlib, and a number of Damascus suburbs, in a show of support for the FSA. The FSA is a growing band of army defectors with the stated claim of defending unarmed civilians against security crackdowns. The actual scope and organizational structure of the group remains disputed. Activists reported that some 20,000 FSA supporters rallied in Idlib while another 15,000 gathered in the Damascus suburb of Douma. No such figures could be independently confirmed.
On Monday, an estimated 11 people were killed in Syria, most in the city of Homs. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that protestors came under fire by government supporters, resulting in the deaths of several people, including a woman.
The same day, SANA reported that an armed terrorist group assassinated Brigadier-General Mohammed Abdul-Hamid al-Awad, along with his driver, in the outskirts of Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that an estimated 18 people were killed in Syria on Tuesday, with most shot by security forces amid security crackdowns in Homs. The Local Coordination committees put the death toll higher at 24.
Shelling was also reported in the city of Zabadani on Tuesday, as well as in Madaya, a nearby town. Residents of the former city reported that water and electricity had been cut. Later that even, however, armed members of the opposition in Zabadani reportedly reached a ceasefire agreement with government forces, with both sides agreeing to leave the streets by today, January 19.
Syrian President issues general amnesty for crimes committed since March 15, 2011
On Sunday, January 15, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a “general amnesty” for “crimes committed in the context of the events taking place since March 15, 2011”.
According to SANA, the Syrian Minister of Justice, Judge Tayseer Qala Awwad, stated that “the decree aims at granting an opportunity for those who committed crimes related to the events which took place since 15/03/2011, adding that the attorney generals and the Public Prosecution were asked to implement the decree immediately“.
Syrian parliamentarian defects to opposition
On January 16, foreign media reported that a member of Syria’s parliament had left the country with the intent of joining the Syrian opposition. The Syrian official, Imad Ghalioun, who represented the city of Homs, said in a statement to Al-Arabiya TV that “The Syrian people are living their worst period.”
Ghalioun continued, “The people of Homs are under siege and the city is disaster-stricken. There is no electricity, piles of garbage fill the streets…The sounds of shelling all night terrify children.”
The official added that numerous Syrian legislators supported the opposition, but have not yet come forward to say so publicly.
Arab League observer mission comes to end, report expected January 20
This week, the Arab League’s observer mission in Syria came to its scheduled end. The mission is broadly considered to have been a failure, with observer forces unable to reach some of the country’s most unstable areas for a number of reasons that remain in dispute.
The mission is set to release a report detailing its findings within 48 hours. League officials will meet in Cairo, Egypt on Sunday to discuss the report’s findings and how to proceed.
To watch a international reportage of some of the troubles encountered by the observer mission, click here.
International Politics & Diplomacy
Emir of Qatar calls for Arab troops to “stop the killing,” Syrian government “absolutely rejects” any such plans
During an interview with the US network CBS on Saturday, January 14, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, stated that he would support a move to dispatch Arab troops to Syria in an effort to “stop the killing”.
“For such a situation to stop the killing … some troops should go to stop the killing,” Sheikh Hamad said when asked if he supported Arab military intervention in the country. The emir’s call was the first of its kind by an Arab leader.
On the issue of whether or not Syria is making progress towards meeting its peace agreement with the Arab League the emir said, “There has been partial progress until now but there is daily bloodshed in Syria that the League aims to end.”
The following day, an Arab League official reportedly denied that there was any “official suggestion to send Arab troops to Syria at the current time.” The official continued, “There has been no Arab or a non-Arab agreement on a military intervention in Syria for the time being.”
On Monday, however, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi told the press that the League would take up a Qatari proposal for military intervention during official meetings this week.
On Tuesday, the Syrian Foreign Ministry responded to the calls for Arab military intervention, stating that, “The Syrian people reject any foreign intervention in its affairs, under any title, and would confront any attempt to infringe upon Syria’s sovereignty and the integrity of its territories.”
Canadian government announces end to voluntary evacuation services, warns of reduction in consular services
Last week, Canadian Foreign Minister and Junior Foreign Minister Diane Ablonczy, issued a joint statement warning Canadian citizens in Syria that the Canadian government’s “voluntary evacuation” efforts, which included expedited visa and passport services, would come to an end on Saturday, January 14.
The statement warned that after the 14th, embassy services “may be reduced or suspended without warning” in response to the deteriorating security situation. The statement also indicated that the government does not yet have plans to officially close its embassy in Syria.
UN Secretary General calls on President Assad to “stop killing your people”
On Sunday, January 15, UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon delivered a keynote address at a conference on the Middle East in Beirut, during which he reiterated his calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to bring an end to the violence.
“Today, I say again to President Bashar Assad of Syria: stop the violence. Stop killing your people,” the Secretary General said.
On the changes that are shaking up the region more broadly, ki-Moon said, “It is sometimes said that authoritarian regimes, whatever else their faults, at least kept a lid on sectarian conflict. This is a cruel canard. Yet it would be equally mistaken to assume that all of the new regimes now emerging will automatically uphold universal human rights.”
“Democracy is not easy,” he continued. “It takes time and effort to build. It does not come into being with one or two elections. Yet there is no going back.”
“The old way, the old order, is crumbling,” Ban added. “One-man rule and the perpetuation of family dynasties, monopolies of wealth and power, the silencing of the media, the deprivation of fundamental freedoms that are the birthright of every man, woman and child on this planet—to all of this, the people say: Enough!”
UK Foreign Secretary: western governments have no plans for military intervention in Syria
On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News that western governments have no plans to launch military action in Syria.
“We haven’t been looking at a no-fly zone,” Hague said, noting a number of shortcomings with regard to such proposals – among them, the reality that the Syrian government is not using air power to quell the unrest.
“There is no serious prospect certainly at the moment of the United Nations Security Council agreeing any resolution at the moment, let alone agreeing a resolution [on Syria] comparable to anything that happened in Libya,” Hague continued.
The Foreign Secretary went on to note that if the current Arab League mission in Syria does indeed fail, he hopes the League “will come to the UN and suggest a way forward that we can all get behind”.
US President vows to intensify pressure on Damascus
During talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II on Tuesday, January 17, US President Barack Obama vowed to intensify international pressure on Damascus for a change in government.
“We continue to see unacceptable levels of violence inside that country,” Obama said. “We will continue to consult very closely with Jordan to create the kind of international pressure and environment that encourage the current Syrian regime to step aside so that a more democratic process and transition can take place inside of Syria,” he continued.
Russian Foreign Minister warns against international meddling in Syria
On Wednesday, January 18 during an annual news conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that international meddling in Syria and support for the Syrian opposition could result in ”a very big war that will cause suffering not only to countries in the region but also to states far beyond its boundaries”.
”If someone conceives the idea of using force at any cost – and I’ve already heard calls for sending some Arab troops to Syria – we are unlikely to be able to prevent this,” Lavrov said. ”But this should be done on their own initiative and should remain on their conscience. They won’t get any authorisation from the Security Council,” Lavrov warned.
On the issue of Russia’s alleged transfer of weapons to Syria, Lavrov said, ”We are only trading goods with Syria that are not prohibited by international law”.
Economic Development & Trade
UK calls for tougher sanctions, EU sanctions list set to expand
On Wednesday, January 18, the British government called for tougher sanctions against Damascus, in response to ongoing and indeed deepening violence across the country.
“Britain needs to lead the way in making sure we tighten the sanctions, the travel bans, the asset freezes, on Syria,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron said in a an address to parliament in London.
Meanwhile, European Union member states are expected to meet on Monday, January 23 to expand the list of Syrian institutions and individuals under European sanctions. Some 22 people are expected to be added to the list, as will be an additional eight organizations.
Syrian pound sinks to six-year low of 71 to US dollar
On Thursday, January 19, Syrian exchange dealers reported that the Syrian pound hit a record low of 71 to the US dollar in the black market – a drop that indicates a loss of a third of the pound’s value.
The drop is attributed to a number of factors, foremost among them, the worsening security climate and related international sanctions agains the country which have left locals rushing to convert pounds to dollars. The supply of dollars, however, has grown thin and is presently only able to meet some 10 percent of local demand.
Until November 2011, Syrian authorities had sought to keep the official exchange rate under 50 pounds to the dollar. Since then, however, in an effort to bridge the gap between the official exchange rate and that found in the black market, they have allowed it to slip quite sharply. It appears that authorities recognize that the country’s foreign reserves cannot be run down at such a rapid pace in the defense of Syria’s currency.
Whether or not the value of the pound continues to sink, depends on how much longer the crisis continues.
Iran denies charges of shipping weapons to Syria via Turkey
On Friday, January 13, Turkish officials reported that they had stopped four trucks caring military cargo from Iran at the Turkish border with Syria. In November of last year, the Turkish government announced that it would stop all shipments of weapons en route to Syria through Turkey, whether by land, air, or sea.
“We deny such claims and we would like to state that the Islamic Republic of Iran sees people’s demands to be paid attention to as a way of providing domestic security and stability and believes that dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition is the way out from the current situation,” the Iranian embassy announced on Friday in response to the charges.
Russian ship offloads suspected munitions cargo in Syrian port of Tartous
On January 16, Turkish officials confirmed that a Russian ship believed to be delivering munitions to Syria in clear violation of the EU’s arms embargo against the country, had docked along the Turkish coast after offloading some 60 tons of cargo in Tartous, Syria.
The Russian ship fell subject to the EU’s embargo law after it was forced to dock in the Greek Cypriot port of Limassol last Tuesday due to a shortage of fuel. Cypriot authorities, Russian allies, allowed the ship to leave the dock when the ship’s owners, St. Petersburg-based Westberg Ltd., claimed they would change course and head to Turkey, not Syria. The ship subsequently vanished off radar and reportedly travelled to Tartous.
When the ship was then inspected by Turkish officials, it was found to have offloaded its cargo.
Further Reading & Viewing
On the Arab League’s observer mission
“In Fog of Syria, Observers Can’t Tell What They Are Seeing” – Los Angeles Times – One of the best articles on the Arab League observer mission, its operating conditions and failings.
On international intervention
“Safe Area for Syria: An Assessment of Legality, Logistics and Hazards” – Strategic Research and Communication Centre – Michael Weiss, Brigadier General Akil Hachim and Ausama Monajed collaborated to put forth a comprehensive report on the legal and humanitarian ramifications of establishing a safe area in Syria.
“Syria’s Uprising and the Mantra of Foreign Intervention” – Al-Akhbar – Salama Kayla’s skilled interrogation of allegations of a conspiracy to wage foreign military intervention in Syria. A different perspective, worth reading.
“It’s Time to Think Seriously About Intervening in Syria” – The Atlantic – Steven Cook critiques assumptions that “it is only a matter of time before the Syrian regime falls” noting that such views are “self-serving” hunches that ignore realities on the ground. Instead, Cook maintains that the current government remains secure in its position and only more “robust responses” to its “outrages” will bring about its end.
“No Military Option in Syria” – Foreign Policy – Marc Lynch responds to and critiques Steven Cook’s calls for military intervention in Syria, highlighting such a scenario’s arguable low probability of success.
“Why Won’t the UN Security Council Intervene in Syria?” – CNN – Mick Krever covers reports of Russian diplomatic maneuverings on the UN Security Council that, according to western officials, are the principal reason for the UN’s overall inaction with regard to Syria.
“It Is Time for Turkish Leadership on Syria” – Today’s Zaman – Suat Kiniklioğlu argues in favor of Turkish intervention in Syria, charging that, “With a more than 900-kilometer-long border with Syria, clear stakes in the outcome of the Syrian situation, a NATO member and a country that enjoys strong regional relations, Turkey is the only country that could and should show leadership in the Syrian case.”
“Obama Administration Secretly Preparing Options for Aiding the Syrian Opposition” – Foreign Policy – Josh Rogin covers allegations that US President Obama is readying a number of plans to assist the Syrian opposition, a no-fly zone, humanitarian corridor, and safe zone – all of which demand military operations – among them.
On civil war
“Fear of Civil War Mounts in Syria as Crisis Deepens” – The New York Times – Anthony Shadid adeptly covers the failures of the Arab League mission in Syria, and concerns that the opposition is collapsing into disarray with growing numbers of its members taking up arms.
“Syria: Beyond the Wall of Fear, A State in Slow-motion Collapse” – The Guardian – Through a series of interviews with residents of Damascus, Ian Black covers the “superficial calm in Damascus” and the view that far worse times lie ahead.
“War in Syria May Now Be Inevitable” – The Telegraph – Michael Weiss discusses Syria’s prospects for ‘Balkanization’ and the likelihood that the current government and its military and security forces will eventually retreat to the port city of Lattakia to make their ‘last stand’.
“Secrets from the City Under Siege” – CNN – A stunning photo essay by an undercover journalist working in Homs, Syria.
On protest organization, opposition creativity and professionalization
“In the Suburbs of Damascus” – Jadaliyya – Layla al-Zubaidi discusses shifts in life in Damascus and its suburbs, the manner in which protests in the capital are organized, the nature of the opposition in Harasta and Douma, and the move toward weaponization by elements of the opposition.
“Syrian Revolution of Creativity” – Babel Med – Hassan Abbas covers the creativity of Syrian activists and members of the opposition, detailing the clever manner in which Syrian protestors circumvent security forces and the government’s self-described ‘iron fist’. (In French.)
“The Professionalisation of Revolution in Syria” – Al Jazeera – Larbi Sadiki covers what he terms the four evolving characteristics of the Syrian revolution: it popularization, professionalization, militarization, and internationalization. Sadiki argues that the most unique of the four is its professionalization which, in the his view, should not come as a surprise to any: “In the case of the Syrians, they have historical depth and pedigree and know very well the giants that once transported them to the peak of global power. All of these from the Umayyad Dynasty’s founders to Saladin, whose eternal resting home is Damascus, dwarf the mediocre rulers they have had for more than 50 years – long before the Assads came to power. According to London-based Obaida Fares: ‘Syrians know that – without the Assads – they can recover their Levantine shine, thanks to a unique mosaic of cultures, sects, religions, and even ethnicities.'” Sadiki likewise highlights the tripartite nature of the opposition’s activities: “mobilization and organization”; “press and propaganda,” and; political activism”.
On daily life – energy cuts, food shortages, inflation, and unemployment
“Hard Times for Syrians with No Relief in Sight” – The National – Reportage on the manner in which the country’s current tumult has impacted daily life. Power cuts, electricity thefts, food shortages, and inflation are covered.
References made to articles, individuals, organizations or government bodies in this blog do not necessarily reflect or imply an endorsement by The Syria Report. The Syria News Blog is a news service offered by The Syria Report only for the purpose of recapping foreign reportage on matters pertaining to Syria.