The Syrian Revolution
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Ramadan came to an end this week with activists charging that some 473 people were killed amid security crackdowns during the 29 days that spanned the holy month. 360 civilians and 113 members of Syrian security forces were among the dead. Though the violence that shook the month was anticipated by many who predicted that daily antigovernment protests would be met with fierce suppression by security forces, those who expected the protests and violence to bring about the collapse of the government have instead found that the standoff between the opposition and the Syrian government remains strong. Deepening US and EU sanctions and the growing prospect of a European oil embargo against Syrian crude – which will undoubtedly destroy the last vestiges of the Syrian economy – likewise suggest that while the international community rallies against the Syrian government, the Syrian people will continue to pay the price for official decisions made at home – and abroad.
Ramadan unrest, protest flashpoints
On Wednesday August 24, security forces carried out mass arrests in the province of Deir ez-Zor as between 20 and 30 tanks reportedly arrived in Mayadeen and Alburhama. One person was reportedly killed during the operations. Another twelve people were reportedly killed in Homs, Medan – a district of Damascus, and Hama. The electricity was reportedly cut in sections of Homs in advance of military operations. Raids were also carried out in Harasta, another Damascus district, as security forces attempted to thwart ongoing attempts to organize mass demonstrations. Thirty-seven people were reportedly arrested.
August 26 marked the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan and Syrian protestors again held demonstrations in cities and towns across the country. In Deir ez-Zor, protestors reportedly called for the death of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, shouting “The people want the execution of the president!” – according to foreign media sources.
There were protests in numerous of the capital’s suburbs, as well as in Aleppo. The day was termed the “Friday of patience and steadfastness”. Nevertheless, protestor numbers had undeniably declined, as the day ended with none of the massive demonstrations seen in previous weeks. Two people were reportedly killed in Deir ez-Zor, as security attempted to suppress crowds of protestors.
Importantly, a group of an estimated 100 people rallied in the heart of Damascus on Baghdad Street, for a number of minutes before dispersing – thus far, central Damascus has not seen much of the unrest.
The southern city of Daraa, the revolution’s original flash point, also saw demonstrations and violence on Friday as security forces reportedly used live ammunition against two large groups of protestors – reportedly totaling an estimated 2,000.
SANA reported that 11 security and army forces were killed by armed terrorists in Homs and Deir ez-Zor that day, with another 16 injured.
Saturday was a holy day commemorating the prophet Muhammad’s receiving of the Koran and there were further demonstrations across the country as people finished morning prayers – including in and around Damascus, with one person shot and killed whilst leaving Rifai mosque in Kafer Souseh, a Damascus neighborhood, and the mosque’s sheik and nine others injured during the crackdown. At the same time, there were protests in the neighborhood of Roukn Eddine as well as Zabadani – one of the city’s suburbs.
International media also reported that Syrian security forces were responding to protests reportedly held overnight in and around the capital with increased security checkpoints and further deployments of Syrian military and helicopter patrols.
Meanwhile, state-run news SANA denied all reports of demonstrations and worsening tensions in Damascus, stating that “tranquility and normal life prevail as people continue their normal lives” in the Syrian capital.
In the northern town of Kfar Nabel not far from Idlib, another person was reportedly killed during house raids.
On Sunday August 28, international media reported that two people were shot and killed and nine others wounded amid security crackdowns the Khan Sheikhun area not far from the city of Idlib.
In Daraa, two people also died from injuries sustained during security crackdowns on Friday. Two others died after being shot by snipers in the Damascus district of Harasta while another was killed in the suburb of Saqba the night before.
There were house raids in a number of town in the province of Deir ez-Zor throughout the day on Sunday. A 12-year-old boy was killed and four other people, a woman among them, were injured during the raids.
On Monday, some 15 people were reportedly killed amid security crackdowns in Homs, while another 400 were reportedly arrested. Troops were reported in the city of Rastan and protests were held in numerous locations across the country – including Deir ez-Zor, Aleppo and several Damascus neighborhoods – including the central district of Malki.
In Sarmin, a district of the northwest province of Idlib, some 60 people were reportedly injured amid house raids.
According to Ammar Qurab of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, in the short span of days between August 19 and 25, an estimated 96 people were killed by Syrian security forces.
On Tuesday Yassein Ziadeh, brother of Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies and visiting scholar at George Washington University, was arrested by Syrian security forces on August 30. Yassein, who is married and with children, was arrested after prayers in Daraya, a town about 10 km outside of Damascus.
The day marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan and security forces reportedly opened fire on protestors in a number of cities as they were exiting mosques, resulting in the deaths of another seven civilians. Four people were reportedly killed in Hara and two in Inkil – both in the province of Daraa. Another died in Homs.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 473 people were killed during Ramadan including 360 civilians and 113 members of the Syrian security forces. Twenty-eight people died whilst in detention and/or under torture.
According to foreign reportage, a growing number of Syrian soldiers are defecting and joining up with Syrian protestors. On Sunday, reports suggested that the Syrian military was engaged in overnight gun battles with army defectors who had allegedly refused to open fire against Syrian protestors in Harasta. The gunfights were said to have occured in the northeast Damascus area of Al-Ghouta. According to the reports, which have come from a broad swath of sources, the soldiers who defected numbered in the dozens.
Defections have also reported in Homs and its suburbs in recent days. Accounts from defected soldiers of the violence against civilians in the city are troubling. Many report that military forces fire upon those who refuse to shoot civilians. While such reports cannot be confirmed, they are widespread.
Attorney General Adnan Bakkour
On Monday, SANA reported that Syria’s Attorney General Adnan Bakkour was kidnapped in the city of Hama whilst traveling to work in the morning.
International media report a different story, however, publishing a video statement by Bakkour indicating that he was resigning from his post in Hama in protest against what he asserts are crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian government against civilians. Bakkour provided a list of reasons for his resignation, chief among them were: the murder of 72 prisoners in Hama’s central prison on July 31 of this year – activists and protestors among them; the burying of over 420 people in mass graves in public parks by security forces – all of whom he alleges he was told to report were killed by armed gangs; the arbitrary arrest and detention of peaceful protestors – of whom he claims there are an estimated 10,000; the torture of prisoners – of whom he estimates some 320 have died whilst being abused, and; the destruction of homes in Hama with residents still inside.
The government claims that the video of Bakkour explaining the reasons for his resignation was filmed by his kidnappers and that he made such statements under threat of force.
Cartoonist Ali Farzat
On Thursday August 25, Syria’s most famous and indeed world renowned cartoonist, Ali Farzat, was forcibly removed from his car in Damascus, brutally beaten, and left alongside the road. He was later picked up by passersby and taken to the hospital.
The attack, which international sources attribute to government sanctioned supporters and the Syrian government attributes to “veiled people“, came after Farzat published a cartoon showing President al-Assad attempting to hitch a ride with Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi. The attackers focused on Farzat’s hands, breaking one of them. For a number of days after Farzat was beaten, his website was taken offline.
In response to the attack against Farzat, cartoonists around the world have been publishing cartoons about the assault in a show of solidarity with the artist. Farzat himself posted his own caricature in response to the assault on August 27.
Amnesty International – report on deaths in detention
On Wednesday August 31, Amnesty International released a report,”Deadly Detention: Deaths In Custody Amid Popular Protest in Syria,” indicating that scores of civilians have died whilst in detention for their suspected or actual participation in the country’s revolutionary unrest. The organization puts the estimated total number of deaths at 88. Children and women are reported among the fatalities – which generally occurred as a consequence of beatings and/or torture. The organizations is calling on the UN Security Council to refer the Syria case to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
Government reform – new media law enacted
On Sunday, President al-Assad issued a Presidential Legislative Decree that purports to bring an end to government control over the media, newspapers and all other publications in Syria. The law requires the government to lift many of the restrictions it has in place against journalists, whilst also allowing independent news organizations to operate within the country. For more details on the law, as well as some of its likely drawbacks, see here.
International Politics & Diplomacy
International sanctions, oil embargo, associated repercussions
On August 25, Visa and Mastercard both announced that their credit cards would not longer be valid in Syria as a consequence of new US sanctions – a move that impacts what lingers of the country’s foreign residents and visitors, as well as Syria’s merchant class and all other Syrians who applied for and obtained such cards since they became available in Syria in 2005.
On August 24, in response to expanded EU sanctions against the Syrian government and high-level Syrian officials, Gulfsands Petroleum Plc (GPX), a British oil explorer with operations in Syria, announced that it was suspending its payments to as well as voting rights of Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s most wealthy and well-known businessman and cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Makhlouf owns 5.75 percent of Gulfsands via Al Mashrek Global Invest.
On Monday, the EU reached an agreement on a ban of oil imports from Syria during a meeting between EU experts and political representatives in Brussels. Some 95 percent of Syrian oil exports end up in Europe.
The next day, the Obama Administration imposed another round of sanctions against Syria – this time blacklisting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, presidential media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, and Syrian ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul Karim Ali.
Of the imposition of sanctions against Moallem, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “This is a guy who we consider has been spreading untruths about the opposition in Syria, untruths about the security situation, untruths about the regime’s activity, and as such has been misleading in his role as foreign minister.” Nuland continued, “we want to make clear that we are holding him and these other two personally responsible for propagating and advancing the regime’s violence and that has not … changed.”
The EU also placed new sanctions against three Syrian companies and four figures on Tuesday while Italy came forward asking to push back the deadline for the oil embargo until November – thus allowing time for its current supply contracts with Syria to expire. EU officials had originally aimed to finalize the embargo by the end of this week.
The EU embargo on Syrian crude is, according to a Syrian ports document, expected to have the strongest impact on Italy. In the month of July this year, almost half of all Syrian oil exports ended up in Italian ports – that is, 55,132 barrels a day out of a total of 110,521 exported. However, it should be noted that the document only covers one month of oil exports. Other recipients of Syrian oil included France, Turkey and Spain.
While many view an oil embargo against Syrian crude as central to bringing about the collapse of the Syrian economy and perhaps the subsequent fall of the current government, others caution that such a move would undoubtedly have a devastating impact on the economy – and Syrian citizens – but that it would take many months – not just a matter of days or weeks, for the full impact of the embargo to kick in.
South Korea – travel ban
Last week, the South Korean Foreign Ministry announced that it was banning its citizens from traveling to Syria, in response to the country’s deepening security crisis. The travel ban, effective beginning August 30, is in place for the coming six months and those who do not comply with it, face a possible one year prison sentence or a fine. At present, there are 74 Korean students living in the country. According to the ministry, they must obtain permission from the South Korean government by September 6 if they wish to stay. The government of South Korea has travel bans against a total of six foreign countries – including Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Yemen.
Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani issued a statement on Friday August 26 in response to the situation in Syria, stating that “All of us, who stood by Syria in its difficult times, have tried to encourage our brothers in Syria to make real reforms. The Syrian people have taken to the street in a real civil uprising to demand change, justice and freedom. Everyone knows that the security approach has proven fruitless, and the Syrian people do not seem about to abandon its demands after the price that it has paid.” Sheikh Hamad was on an official visit to Iran.
Russia introduced a UN resolution on the Syria issue on August 26 calling upon the Syrian government to bring an end to the violence against protestors and speed up reforms, but neglecting to mention any official UN sanctions against the country. The UK and Germany responded by approving Russia’s stronger stance against Syria, but noting that in the absence of sanctions, any such resolution was weak. The Russian draft specifically calls for “an inclusive and Syrian-led political process” and calls upon the Syrian opposition to engage in dialogue with the government.
On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov arrived in Damascus for talks with President Assad. According to Russian media sources, Bogdanov called upon the Syrian government to implement an immediate ceasefire and urged President Assad to implement reforms without delay. Bogdanov also called upon the Syrian opposition to participate in dialogue with the current Syrian government in an effort to restore peace.
On August 26 during a televised addressed, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah reiterated Hezbollah’s support for the Syrian government, stating that, ”We stand by Syria’s side and by the leaders to support them in their reform process…Without Syria’s support, the South (of Lebanon) would never have been freed.”
Nasrallah added that ‘Had it not been for Syria, the Lebanese resistance wouldn’t have triumphed in 2000, the Lebanese territories wouldn’t have been restored and Gaza wouldn’t have remained firm and strong…We want a strong Syria and all those who say they have the interests of Syria, its people and its future at heart, should make efforts to calm the situation now so that everything can be resolved peacefully”.
“Syria succeeded in preserving its unity throughout history… It was unified and so it should remain,” Nasrallah continued.
On Saturday August 27, Iran called upon the Syrian government to recognize the Syrian people’s “legitimate” demands – marking the first time Tehran has publicly rebuked the the Syrian government since the start of the unrest in March. The remarks came from Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi who said of the unrest across countries in the region, that “government should answer to the demands of its people, be it Syria, Yemen or other countries. The people of these nations have legitimate demands, and the governments should answer these demands as soon as possible.” He continued, “a vacuum in the Syrian regime would have an unpredictable impact on the region and its neighbors.”
Though Salehi’s remarks did not push for a specific path of change in Damascus, they marked a significant shift in Iran’s response to the Syrian revolution – and indeed all of those revolutions that have shaken the region in recent months.
The Arab League
The Arab League held a meeting in Cairo on Saturday with the intention of warning Syria that it will no longer be silent regarding the Syrian government’s use of violence against Syrian protestors. Though an unnamed official in attendance at the meeting reportedly indicated that suspending Syria from the League is “not on the table,” participants did agree to “send a message to the Syrian leader [President Assad] informing him that Arab silence on what is taking place in Syria is no longer acceptable.”
The Syrian government responded to the Saturday’s statement by the Arab League asserting that “the Syrian leadership responded to those popular demands [of Syria’s revolutionaries] through a series of procedures and laws to improve the living conditions and start a national dialogue.” According to the government, the “response of the Syrian leadership to the popular demands has contributed to stopping the popular protests in several cities; however, a suspicious activity by some outlaws of known political and religious backgrounds started in some Syrian cities.”
According to the same sources, Syria is still “proceeding with reform and fulfilling the legitimate demands of citizens and the national duty of protecting their security” and the government will not “allow terrorism and extremism to undermine coexistence and independence of national decision-making”.
According to a quote put forth by SANA, Youssef Ahmad, Syria’s permanent representative to the Arab League stated that the Syrian government views it as “strange that some Arab and regional sides issued statements of ‘advice’ to the Syrian leadership at a time which coincides with an increase of international and US pressure.” Ahmad continued that, “Syria would accept advice and experiences from friendly countries which are truly concerned over stability and security of Syria and have a practical and constitutional experience in the field of basic public freedoms.”
Foreign media reported on Sunday August 28 that Turkish President Abdullah Gul told Anatolia news agency that “Clearly we [the Turkish government] have reached a point where anything would be too little too late. We lost our confidence.” Gul continued, “incidents are said to be ‘finished’ and then another 17 are dead. How many will it be today? … Today in the world there is no place for authoritarian administrations, one-party rule, closed regimes.” Such administrations could be “replaced by force” if those at their helm did not implement reform. “Everyone should know that we are with the Syrian people,” he continued.
While the Syrian government continues its steady descent into international isolation, it appears to be maintaining its links to Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi. Indeed, the only television station in the world willing to air Gaddafi’s rants, is the privately owned network called Al Oruba TV – which has firm ties to the Syria-based TV station Arrai TV. Continued linkages between the Syrian government and Gaddafi come at a considerable political risk to President Assad. While Arrai is a private channel, it would be impossible for it to continue airing such content without approval from the Syrian government.
US Ambassador attacked in Damascus
On August 29, international media reported that a video leaked onto the internet shows that US ambassador to Syria was attacked in front of the Cham Palace Hotel in Damascus by a bunch of pro-government men on August 23. One of the attackers attempted to wrap the ambassador in a banner featuring the face of President Assad. The ambassador was not injured during the attack and was quickly put in a car and driven off by his security.
“The Endgame for Syria’s Bloody Junta” – The Guardian – Key Syrian opposition activist, Burhan Ghalioun, argues that the Syrian revolt has thus far demonstrated two key facts: 1) the Syrian government has no intention of implementing serious reform, and; 2) members of the Syrian opposition will “persist in their struggle until they achieve their demands for freedom and the establishment of a democratic authority of their choosing – whatever the cost”. As Ghalioun sees it, though the Syrianrevolution has suffered considerable blows – first and foremost among them, the Syrian government’s use of extreme violence against members of the opposition – it is “not the popular protest movement that is now facing crisis, but the regime”.
“If the Arab Spring Turns Ugly” – The New York Times – Vali Nasr, a professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution puts forth an accessible assessment of the regional sectarian rivalries that threaten to destroy the hopeful motivations behind the Syrian revolution – and all others that have taken hold of the Middle East this year.
“Drawing the Regime’s Wrath” – The Economist – Background on Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, who was attacked (allegedly by Syrian security forces) last week in Damascus after publishing a controversial cartoon depicting President Assad attempting to hitch a ride with Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi. The article details the wrath Farzat has endured over the years for his controversial and unflinching caricatures of Arab leaders – President Assad among them.
Two articles by journalist Anthony Shadid for The New York Times – the latter being particularly noteworthy: “After Arab Revolts, Reigns of Uncertainty” – An exploration of the uncertainty that now enshrouds the revolutions across the Middle East and their plausible outcomes. “Syria’s Sons of No One” – New York Times – Shadid offers up an extended account of his time with a number of wanted Syrian dissidents, covering their views of the revolution and perspective on why it must carry on. Worth reading.
“Iran Makes a U-turn on Syria” – Asia Times – Kaveh Afrasiabi evaluates Tehran’s change of policy with regard to the situation in Syria by referring to the “legitimate demands” of Syrian protesters and the need for the Syrian government to respect the people’s rights to “achieve freedom”. According to Afrasiabi, Tehran now recognizes that the current Syrian government may not weather the revolt and has responded by adopting a “dualistic approach toward Syria” – pushing for reform on the one hand, and discretely supporting the Syrian government on the other.
Syrian poet Adonis wins Goethe Prize
On August 28, Syrian poet Adonis won Germany’s Goethe Prize for “transposing Europe’s modern achievements into the Arab world,” according to the jury.
The poet, born Ali Ahmad Said Esber in 1930, became serious about poetry after having the opportunity to recite a poem to then Syrian President Shukri al-Kuwatli. He eventually graduated from Damascus University with a degree in philosophy in 1954. His poetry was not widely published until after he adopted his pen name, after the mythical god of fertility. After he was imprisoned for his political activities, he sought refugee in Beirut in 1956. Adonis studied in Paris in the 1960s, and eventually became a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Lebanon – though he fled the war in Lebanon and took up permanent residence in France in 1980.
Adonis has published over 30 books. The Goethe Prize is month the most prestigious of Germany’s literary awards and is only granted every three years. Past winners include Sigmund Freud (1930), Max Planck (1945), Walter Gropius (1961) and Pina Bausch (2008).
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