Syria’s Protest Movement
In the last eight days, the security environment in Syria has taken a significant turn for the worse. After-prayers protests last Friday were reported by some to have reached their largest numbers since the inception of unrest in Syria on March 15. Though there were few reports of violence on Friday, there were grave reports of violence Sunday through Tuesday – irregardless of President Bashar al-Assad’s conciliatory address to the cabinet on Saturday April 16.
The President has made gestures in the way of reform, however, it remains to be seen if both proposed reforms and those that have already been implemented, will bring about changes compelling enough to satisfy the country’s growing protest movement.
On Wednesday April 13, a three-page document dated March 23, 2011 reportedly issued by a Syrian intelligence agency, was leaked to the international media. The document detailed the government’s alleged strategy for dealing with the protest movement and given its highly grim nature, it was the subject of considerable international attention. However, no source has been able to verify its authenticity. For more details, see here.
That day, the protest movement reached a critical turning point as hundreds of women from the town of Bayda – perhaps even thousands – took over a highway not far from the neighboring city of Baniyas, to protest against the mass arrests of men from their town – 350 of whom were detained on Tuesday. The scene was utterly unprecedented in Syria. The protest movement also reached Aleppo that day – another first.
On Thursday, state media announced that all those detained since March 15, save for those guilty of committing “criminal acts”, will be released from prison. Newly appointed Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar also announced the members of the new government that day, which saw the loss of Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Abdullah al-Dardari. This was a major blow to those encouraged by Syria’s recent economic reforms. Indeed, Dardari’s name had become synonymous with economic reform, which according to his plans, included efforts to eliminate key subsidies. However unfortunate, it is unsurprising that he was removed from his position – his path of reform, was hard for many to swallow. For The Syria Report’s detailed analysis of all recent changes in the government see here, here and here.
Thursday’s announcements of reform were interpreted by many, as an effort to appease protestors in advance of Friday’s planned demonstrations. However, the country nevertheless erupted in protests again on Friday – with a number of reports suggesting that they were the largest yet. In Douma, a Damascus suburb, protestors apparently held up yellow cards – a warning for the government inspired by football. Some international sources report that 100,000 demonstrated in the neighborhoods surrounding Damascus only to be dispersed by security forces as they approached the capital’s Abbassiyen Square, while another estimated 20,000 took to the streets in Daraa, where security forces apparently were ordered not to intervene.
However, a number of other reputable sources put the numbers of protestors out across the country at significantly lower numbers – figures which are likely more accurate. According to those sources, 3,000 people marched in Daraa; 5,000 in Qamishli in the northeast; 4,500 in Raas al-Ayn, Amuda and Derbassiye – three Kurdish neighborhoods near Qamishli; 1,000 in Lattakia; 4,000 in Homs; 50 in Barz – an area near Damascus, and; 2,000 in Jobar just outside of Damascus. The day was largely free from violence, however, state media reported that a policeman was killed by protestors in Homs.
Signs of hope following the President’s address to his newly sworn-in cabinet on Saturday, were abruptly stifled as protestors took to the streets around the country in the days after his speech – a full transcript of which, can be found here. More conciliatory than his March 30 speech, the President announced that the 1963 emergency law would be lifted in the coming week, declared the hundreds who have died here during recent unrest martyrs, and noted that corruption and unemployment are among the country’s biggest issues going forward.
Sunday was Independence Day, a national holiday that commemorates the departure of French forces from Syria 65 years ago, and protestors took to the streets in droves. Homs, Syria’s third largest city, was the scene of serious violence. According to international media, about 40 protestors gathered outside of the city’s Bab al-Sibaa mosque to call for “freedom” only to be surrounded by seven cars full of men dressed in street clothes. The men open fired on the protestors, killing between 12 and 25. The town of Talbisa, near to Homs, also saw the deaths of five protestors that day and according to local news, 11 policemen and members of security forces were injured.
The same sources, however, attribute the violence to “a group of armed criminals”. The sources also report that armed groups also began “terrorizing innocent civilians” and “cutting off public roads” near the town. A military unit was apparently deployed to the scene and more violence ensued, resulting in the killing of “three members of the armed groups”, the wounding of another 15, and the injuring of five army personnel. International media attributes all such violence to the efforts of security forces to quell demonstrations.
International media report that the unrest in Homs was sparked by the arresting of Sheikh Baddar Abu Moussa on Friday while he participated in demonstrations in Homs. Sheikh Abu Moussa was killed while in police custody, with most sources reporting torture as the cause.
On Monday, an estimated 5,000 took over Al-Saa Square in Homs, following mass funerals for the people killed the day before. The demonstrators allegedly set up checkpoints around the area in an effort to ensure that those entering were unarmed. International media reports that the demonstrators referred to the area “Tahrir Square” throughout the day – a reference to the square in Cairo that became the home of the protest movement that eventually ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Security forces used loudspeakers to order the protestors to leave – eventually setting a curfew of 2:30am. However, according to some sources, gunfire could be heard at the square beginning at 2:15am. International media estimate that between five and 17 people were killed.
This came the same day that the Ministry of Interior released a statement attributing violence in recent days to a “mutiny led by Salafi armed groups” aiming to “create chaos and terrify the Syrian people, exploiting the reform and freedom process launched within a comprehensive program according to specific timetables announced” by President Assad.
On Tuesday, protestors in Homs initiated a three-day strike, promising to continue with their demonstrations in Al-Saa Square. International reports suggest that Homs is in a state of disarray with nearly all of its businesses closed and security forces blocking off many roads. The city’s protestors are planning for huge demonstrations this coming Friday – terming the day “Great Day of Protests.” The city of Homs, with a population of about 800,000, is critically important to the country’s industrial sector and there is little doubt that the worsening of unrest there, will have a strongly negative impact on the country’s economy.
In another show of the increasing brazenness of Syrian protestors, a group of Damascus University students attempted to stage a protest in front of the university’s medical school on Tuesday. Though they were quickly dispersed by security, their efforts are indicative of changing attitudes – tight security in Damascus has thus far served as an effective deterrent and suppressant of protests in the city.
The government also came forward with a number of key reforms on April 19, including that it passed a bill to officially end the state of emergency, that the Higher State Security Court – which is responsible for the trials of political prisoners, has been abolished, and that a new law allowing for peaceful demonstrations has been drafted. In its announcement, the government explained that “(t)his package of strategic bills is part of the political reform program that aims at bolstering democracy, expanding citizens’ participation, strengthening national unity, guaranteeing the safety of country and citizens, and confronting various challenges.”
Nevertheless, it seems the Syrian protest movement has gained sufficient momentum to be unappeased by such reforms. Protestors in Homs, for example, are rumored to have vowed not to leave Al-Saa Square, until the entire regime is overthrown. This at least, is how the international media reports it.
“Twisting Assad’s Arm” in Foreign Policy – Andrew Tabler, a journalist posted for a number of years in Syria, critiques the US approach to diplomacy with Syria.
“The Continuing Protests in Arab Countries – The Case of Syria” in the Huffington Post – a detailed assessment of the particularities of Syria’s protest movement couched in related history of the region.
“Who Are the Shabbiha?” in The Weekly Standard – a discussion of the group’s alleged origins, membership, activities and interests. (For more related takes on the group and its rumored activities, see here.)
Two articles on the cyber component of the unrest here:
“Syria’s Cyber Revolution” in GlobalPost and “Is the Syrian Government Responsible for Spam Polluting #Syria on Twitter?” in Radio Free Europe: Radio Liberty.
“Syria’s Assad “Faces Strong Challenge Without Reform” in Reuters – Mariam Karouny’s analysis of the demands of members of Syria’s opposition groups.
“Syria Crisis Could Change Face of Middle East” in the BBC – an assessment of how unrest in Syria could and likely will destabilize the entire region.
“Syria on the Boil” in Arab News – an editorial on why the lifting of the emergency law and other such reforms will not bring an end to the unrest.
Now, for the remainder of the weekly international news roundup.
Politics & Diplomacy
Last week, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner, announced that the US government has “credible information that Iran is assisting Syria” in managing the country’s unrest. Toner’s allegations rapidly spread across international media, causing debates and considerable anger. According to Toner, the US government believes that Iran is channeling riot control gear into Syria and providing it with technical advice on related matters. The Syrian government adamantly denies all such allegations.
A number of international analysts expressed concern that Iranian meddling in Syrian affairs could spark disastrous results. For many, Iran’s relative silence on the unrest in Syria and vocal support for it in other Arab states is quite telling. Iran has gained key economic and political strategic ground as a result of the region’s turmoil – but a worsening of unrest in Syria would take a serious toll on its interests and security.
Only a few days before Toner’s statement, Hilary Clinton made a statement on the situation in Syria for a CNN report, saying that “(i)t is time for the Syrian government to stop repressing their citizens and start responding to their aspirations.”
On April 15, during a meeting in Moscow, a number of Russian politicians affirmed their support for the Syrian government.
The same day, a Lebanese daily reported that Wikileaks cables indicate that Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s outgoing premier, had aimed to politically isolate Syria and oust its current leadership. The day before, Syrian State TV ran a broadcast featuring an interview with an alleged terrorist claiming to have been paid and armed by Lebanese Future movement MP, Jamal al-Jarrah to incite unrest in Syria and carry out violent attacks against the government.
On Friday, the Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdulkarim, stated while attending a press conference that he was sure that the “majority of Lebanese people are keen on Syria’s independence…and that they realize that any harm that becomes Syria will affect Lebanon.”
On Sunday and Monday and Tuesday, a number of Lebanese officials came forward with statements in support of the Syrian government. The MP of Lebanon’s Change and Reform Bloc, Michel Aoun, also reiterated his country’s commitment to the Taif Agreement, which essentially states that Lebanon cannot serve as a base or launching point for attacks against Syria.
The Washington Post published an article on Sunday which revealed that the US State Department has been secretly financing Syrian opposition groups since 2006. The initiative, started by former US President Bush, has been continued by the Obama Administration. Though the funding, totaling USD 6m is small, its political cost to the US government now that its efforts have been made public, is enormous. The news plays well for the Syrian government, which has maintained throughout the unrest, that the country’s recent turmoil is the result of foreign meddlers – including the US goverment.
On Monday, Hezbollah MP Nawwaf Moussawi made a statement in support of President Assad and the Syrian government, noting that Lebanon’s stability and security hinges on that of its neighbor and blaming unrest in Syria on “the American-Zionist-Western plot to undermine its national, pan-Arab and resistance role.”
That day, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem held a meeting with a number of Arab and foreign ambassadors in Damascus to discuss the unrest in Syria and President Assad’s speech over the weekend. Mr. Moallem stated that, “(w)e believe that those who want reform express their opinion peacefully from the basis that this reform is a national necessity… those who want reform do not use violence”.
On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that he welcomed the Syrian government’s decision to lift the state of emergency, but that there was “still much more to do“.
At the same time, EU foreign policy chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, told Al Jazeera that EU member states are “very worried” about the violence in Syria and continued on to state, “(t)here has to be an end to violence. The first thing is we’ve got to stop the violence. The government has got to take its responsibilities seriously.”
On Friday April 15, between 400 and 500 trucks were held at the border crossing between Syria and Lebanon for inspection by Syrian authorities. The inspections were the result of increasing concerns about Syria’s security situation and had been put in place three days earlier. The border where the trucks were stopped, Abboudiyeh crossing, leads directly to Homs.
Syrian authorities stopped a refrigerated truck at the al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq on Monday April 18. The driver, an Iraqi, was allegedly attempting to smuggle a massive load of weapons, including machine guns and sniper rifles into Syria.
Economics & Agriculture
It is telling that in recent weeks, news related to Syria’s economic development and trade agreements has plummeted.
This week in Aleppo, scientists are holding an international conference aimed at building up a scientific ‘counteroffensive’ against a fungus called Yellow Rust, that is systematically destroying wheat crops in Syria as well as in a number of countries around the world. The International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas is based in Aleppo.
Last week, the Syrian government announced that it will allow three government-owned lenders – Popular Credit Bank, Savings Bank and Industrial Bank – to sell foreign currencies to their customers.