Syria's Protest Movement
The last 10 days saw international media coverage of the ongoing revolutionary tumult in Syria, largely hijacked by reportage on the increasing diplomatic tensions between Syria and the United States and France. While Syrians continue to take to the streets in massive numbers across the country, a controversial trip by US and French Ambassadors Ford and Chevallier to Hama on July 7- 8, followed by mob attacks on the US and French embassies on July 11, and harsh verbals exchanges between Damascus and Washington in the hours that ensued, took centre stage in foreign reportage. In the comparative background, the planning meetings of the government-led national dialogue started and finished with inconclusive results as the protest movement, now officially in its fifth month, carries on with another 19 protestors killed in unrest in Damascus, Idlib, and Deir ez-Zor today, July 15.
Protest flash points, July 7th - 15th
A week ago on Friday July 8, hundreds of thousands of Syrians participated in anti-government demonstrations across the country. An estimated fifteen people were killed
in the day's protests, including six in Dumair - a town not far from Damascus, three in Maarat al-Numaan on the eastern border of Idlib province and two in the Damascus district of Midan. The day was termed the "Friday of No Dialogue" in reference to the government-promoted talks that were set to begin on July 10 to start the national dialogue.
On Monday July 11, Syrian security forces reportedly ratcheted up the crackdown against those participating in the unrest in Homs. According to international media, one civilian was killed while another 20 were injured, as security forces engaged in raids allegedly backed by tanks and armor. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that armored vehicles had entered the city the night before, firing machine-guns in some of the city's neighborhoods and arresting large numbers of suspected dissidents.
The same reports
indicated that a number of prominent figures were arrested around the country, including neurosurgeon Jalal al-Najjar, theatre director Osama Ghanem, journalist Omar al-Assad and veterinarian Abdelghani Khamis.
On Wednesday July 13, there were reports of further significant violence in the region of Jebel al-Zawiya - where the Syrian army was deployed just over two weeks ago to control anti-government unrest. Four people were reportedly killed that day, while international reports
indicated that several minor oil pipelines in the town of Mayadin in the country's northeastern province were also blown up. The same day, protestors in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan, numbering in the hundreds, were dispersed by baton-wielding security forces. Four protestors were reportedly arrested.
*Today Friday July 15, Syria entered its fifth month of revolutionary tumult and hundreds of thousands of Syrians held demonstrations in cities and villages across the country. An estimated 19 people died today amid protests, some 13 of whom were killed as large numbers took to the streets in suburbs of Damascus. Other fatalities were reported in Daraa, Homs and Idlib. Thousands again came out in Hama and Deir ez-Zor in the country's northeast where, according to international media, protestors have renamed the city's central roundabout 'Freedom Square'. The same reports indicate that the crowds in all three locations were the largest seen since the unrest began in March.
suggest that protestors in Qaboun attempted to block the passage of security forces, while other sought to protect local government property from any damage so as not to provide further reason for security intervention.
Residents of Hama reportedly removed some of the barricades they had previously erected to prevent security from entering the city, after securing agreement from officials that peaceful protests would be permitted. While central Damascus and Aleppo both continue to remain relatively quiet on Fridays, the country's primary hot spots have seen increasingly large numbers of protestors take to the streets.
Government decrees, reforms
On Sunday July 10, President Assad also issued Decree No. 254 for 2011
, which appointed Anas Abdul-Razzaq Na'em the new governor of Hama. Previously, Na'em served as the secretary of the Hama branch of the Baath Party and the head of the Hama branch of the Doctors' Union. The move came as a disappointment to many, as Na'em is relatively unknown while the governor he replaced, Dr. Ahmad Khaled Abdul-Aziz, was quite popular with the city's residents as a result of his alleged sympathy for the protest movement.
During a meeting on Wednesday July 13, the Judicial Reform Committee stressed the significance of "the full independence of the judiciary authority from the legislative and executive authorities
." The committee also clarified that, "The legislative authority cannot in any way harm the immunity granted to judges, and the parliamentary control over the work of the government does not in any way extend to the judiciary work at courts because this constitutes a violation of the independence of the judiciary authority". The executive authority, is also "not allowed to interfere in the appointment, promotion or accountability of the judges or invalidate judicial rulings".
On July 10, the government moved forward with the first meeting of the planned national dialogue. The meetings spanned two days and served as a preliminary conference, intended to start discussions on political reforms and associated party laws, among much else. However, as key opposition members had boycotted any negotiations with the government so long as military and security forces continue use violence against civilians, the vast majority of the opposition members it invited to participate, refused to attend. As put by Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organisation for Human Rights and a leading activist who turned down an invitation to participate in the meeting reportedly said of the dialogue, “If the government ordered the killing of people, then this is dialogue with murderers. And we will not enter into a discussion with murderers
For a government-organized event, some participants expressed surprisingly harsh criticisms of Syria's political and security system, though many others expressed opinions in line with the state's interpretation of the country's current crisis - namely, that it has been perpetrated by foreign conspirators. A member of the country's Parliament, Mohammad Habash, made a speech advocating for constitutional reform that would enable presidential elections, while Tayeb Tizini, a well-known member of the opposition" demanded the "dismantling of the security state". Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa conceded that "a great deal of mistakes had been made".
According to many, the most troubling aspects of the meeting
included the absence of key members of Syria's opposition and the wide divide it revealed between those who concede that the current system must undergo some level of reform - and those who demand nothing less than ouster of the president and a complete restructuring of Syria's system of government.
By all accounts, the Syrian political landscape - and those willing to express critical views of it - is changing. Following the meeting in late June at the Semiramis Hotel in Damascus, during which some 190 intellectuals and members of the opposition expressed harsh criticisms of the Syrian government, members of the opposition created the National Board of Coordination - which put forth a plan to reform the country's current system.
Tomorrow, Saturday July 16, the National Salvation Council is scheduled to be launched in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun. The Council, organized by Meshaal Tamo and Haitham al-Maleh, is expected to draw members of the Local Coordination Committees, who are considered key players in the country's current protest movement - though they have remained both secretive and disconnected from public meetings. Local Coordination Committees are run by Syrian youths and as put by Tammo, "Opposition meetings must include the youths who are risking their lives in the street for freedom. They are the real power behind the uprising
." As the meeting remains unauthorized, whether or not it happens serves as another test of the country's progression toward political openness.
To that end, while many in and outside of Syria have pelted such meetings and efforts with allegations of ties to the government, or otherwise limited prospects for legitimately shaping the country's future, all such moves reflect a critical change in the country's political landscape - a political opening not seen in Syria since the 1960s. As put by rights activist Mazen Darwish, "Until now independent politics has meant secret meetings and people whispering between themselves inside their homes. We wanted to push it into the public realm. We wanted to show that politics means discussion, and different opinions, not just the state telling people what they are allowed to think and say. It sounds simple but in Syria that is an amazing idea."
Some argue that the political ideas formerly construed as radical by the government and much of the Syrian populace, are now becoming concepts thrown around in everyday conversation. How this shift will likely play out in the future, remains unclear. Many believe that sustained and critical political dialogue will eventually result in broad-scale change across the current political system. As put by one activist in an interview with Phil Sands, a Damascus-based journalist for The National
, "The protesters have opened the door and we all have to make sure we go through and together keep it open. In the end we all know there will have to be a political settlement in Syria, and for that we need this kind of politics to be happening
International Crisis Group
On July 6, the International Crisis Group released a report, "Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution
," that puts forth a comprehensive assessment of the progression of the Syrian protest movement, and the underlying causes for the unrest. The report asserts that "Demonstrations have been growing in impressive fashion…regime support has been declining as the security services’ brutality has intensified, but many constituents still prefer the status quo to an uncertain and potentially chaotic future." The report continues, "What is clear, however, is the degree to which a wide array of social groups, many once pillars of the regime, have turned against it and how relations between state and society have been forever altered."
According to the report, the Syrian government initially misdiagnosed the nature and causes of the protests, responding as if "each and every disturbance was an isolated case requiring a pin-point reaction rather than part of a national crisis that would only deepen short of radical change."
Also detailed are the country's long-standing economic woes, including the stagnation of salaries, harm to local manufactures of inexpensive imports, the short-term costs of economic liberalization amid widespread drought in the country's farmlands, and sprawling city suburbs populated with growing numbers of rural migrants and members of the middle class unable to meet increasing expenses with unchanged salaries.
While many believe that members of the country's elite military forces continue to remain loyal to the current government, the report suggestions that such conceptions might be incorrect. The report is the first of two - the latter of which, will be released in the coming weeks and is set to cover the Syrian government's response to the crisis.
International Committee of the Red Cross
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced
on July 8 that it has expanded its humanitarian aid operations in Syria, in accordance with the negotiations it held with the Syrian government two weeks prior which resulted in its being granted unlimited access to the country's flash points.
Human Rights Watch
The individuals interviewed by the organization, were interviewed in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The interviewees allegedly participated in military crackdowns in Izraa, Baniyas, Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, Jisr al-Shughour, and Daraa.
As stated by Human Rights Watch, "Under international standards such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The UN Code of Conduct for law enforcement officials says that they shall to the best of their capability prevent and rigorously oppose any violations of the law or Code of Conduct."
International Politics & Diplomacy
American & French ambassadors' trip to Hama
On Thursday July 7, US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford and his French counterpart Eric Chevallier, each visited the central city of Hama, in anticipation of a violent crackdown against its protestors - an estimated 300,000 of whom had come out to demonstrate the week before. International sources reported that the cities residents greeted the ambassadors with olive branches and roses
. The visits were allegedly intended to enable the ambassadors to make contact with Syrian dissidents as well as to extend their support
for the protest movement. Both ambassadors remained in the city until the following morning, before the start of Friday's protests.
Syrian government outraged
However, according the US State Department, Ambassador Ford was not summoned by the government, but instead was attending a prescheduled meeting with Foreign Minister Walid Moallem - during which time, Moallem reportedly also "filed an official complaint
" with Ford in response to his trip to Hama.
Washington's response to tensions over Hama trip
In a press conference on Friday July 8 in Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland responded to the Syrian government's condemnation of Ambassador Ford's trip to Hama by stating, "Frankly we're a little bit dismayed" and noting that the notion that the Syrian government was unaware of plans for the trip "doesn't make sense". Nuland went on to state that Ford "witnessed average Syrians asking for change in their country," and went on to add that the allegation by the Syrian government that Fords visit was a provocation was "absolute rubbish
The same day, JJ Harder, US embassy spokesman said of Ford's visit that he "certainly did not incite anyone to anything" and that the ambassador "met with average Syrian citizens and received a warm welcome. Some had been part of the marches in the Syrian streets over the past few months…[Ford] wanted to see with his own eyes what was happening on the ground… [because] the lack of uninhibited access for international media makes this even more important." Harder alleged that the US embassy had informed the Syrian government of the intention of a US delegation to travel to Hama on Thursday and Friday. In addition to noting that "We wish the Syrian government would allow international media to have unfettered access so that they could report on this," Harder also stated that Ambassador Ford saw "no evidence" of armed groups in Hama.
Debate over US motivations
US President Obama's decision to install a US ambassador in Damascus last winter was poorly received by his republican opponents, who maintain that diplomatic relations with a foreign government with alleged ties to terrorist organizations, as well as a host of other politically inconvenient associations, essentially condones such practices. Since the onslaught of the crisis in Syria, members of the republican party have jumped on the opportunity to point out Obama's perceived failings with regard to the Syria issue - noting that Ambassador Ford has largely been unable to meet with key Syrian leaders, elected to go on a controversial government-organized tour of the embattled north, and has seemingly little connection to the country's opposition. Ambassador Ford's decision to visit Hama in advance of Friday protests is thought by many to reflect his, and indeed Obama's, growing political need
to demonstrate the legitimacy of his posting. Unsurprisingly, his trip to Hama was widely lauded back in the United States and bolstered the case for maintaining his post in the US embassy.
Hama trip - authorized or not?
Adding to the post-Hama trip firestorm, is the debate over whether or not Ford and Chevallier received authorization from the Syrian government in advance of their travels. While the Syrian government adamantly denounced the trip as occurring "without permission" - given the high level of security across the country, many find that allegation absurd
. The ambassadors would have passed through a large number of security checkpoints and likewise would have needed to arrange a secure location to spend the night as the trip spanned 24 hours. If the Syrian government had indeed not authorized the trip, there were many opportunities
for it to stop the ambassadors en route - and know in advance, of their travels.
Attacks on US and French Embassies
On Friday July 8 in response to Ford and Chevallier's trip to Hama, the French consulate in Aleppo and the US embassy in Damascus, became the scenes of pro-government, anti-French/American demonstrations. The protest in front of the US embassy was permitted to carry on for a lengthy 31 hours, during which time demonstrators threw tomatoes and stones at the embassy as well as some members of its staff.
At the US embassy, demonstrators were able to climb the fence surrounding the embassy, scale its walls, remove the American flag and replace it with that of Syria's. Graffiti was sprayed on the walls and windows were smashed, as were the facility's security cameras. US Marine guards fired tear gas on the crowds as Syrian security forces watched.
At the French embassy, protestors attempted to break into the facility using a battering ram. The Ambassador's car was destroyed, a number of windows were smashed, and three security guards were injured. The mobs were dispersed by warning shots fired by French security forces as Syrian security forces looked on.
US responds to protests & attacks
"Outside the Embassy demonstrators complained about U.S. policy towards the Syrian government and my trip to Hama.
"As I have said before, we respect the right of all Syrians – and people in all countries - to express their opinions freely and in a climate of mutual respect. We wish the Syrian government would do the same – and stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators. I have not seen the police assault a “mnhebak” demonstration yet. I am glad – I want all Syrians to enjoy the right to demonstrate peacefully. On July 9 a “mnhebak” group threw rocks at our embassy, causing some damage. They resorted to violence, unlike the people in Hama, who have stayed peaceful. Go look at the Ba’ath or police headquarters in Hama – no damage that I saw.
"Other protesters threw eggs and tomatoes at our embassy. If they cared about their fellow Syrians the protesters would stop throwing this food at us and donate it to those Syrians who don’t have enough to eat. And how ironic that the Syrian Government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere.
"The people in Hama have been demonstrating peacefully for weeks. Yes, there is a general strike, but what caused it? The government security measures that killed protesters in Hama. In addition, the government began arresting people at night and without any kind of judicial warrant. Assad had promised in his last speech that there would be no more arrests without judicial process. Families in Hama told me of repeated cases where this was not the reality. And I saw no signs of armed gangs anywhere – not at any of the civilian street barricades we passed.
"Hama and the Syrian crisis is not about the U.S. at all. This is a crisis the Syrian people are in the process of solving. It is a crisis about dignity, human rights, and the rule of law. We regret the loss of life of all Syrians killed, civilians and security members both, and hope that the Syrian people will be able to find their way out of this crisis soon. Respect for basic human rights is a key element of the solution."
Clinton firestorm: "President Assad is not indispensable"
the attacks and accused the Syrian government of responding slowly to the situation and neglecting to prevent an assault on the US embassy. The US also accused Damascus of initiating the attacks in an effort to draw international and local attention away from the country's internal crisis. State Department spokeswoman Nuland termed the attackers "thugs" and called the events "absolutely outrageous".
US embassy ends visa services
Syrian ambassador to US summoned to US State Department
European Union imposes further sanctions
On Tuesday, the UN Security Council condemned "in the strongest terms" the attacks again both the French and US embassies in Damascus
. The following day, a number of European governments, including that of France, circulated a draft resolution during a UN Security Council meeting, urging the UN to take action in response to the crisis in Syria. China and Russia, long-standing opponents of any such resolution, blocked the move
. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explained his country's decision, noting that diplomacy is about "political scores. Our goal is to solve problems, but just condemning people without any solution will not lead us to anything."
On July 8, the Secretary General of the Association of Banks in Lebanon, Makram Sadar, issued a statement indicating the international reports alleging massive capital flight from Syria into Lebanon, are exaggerated and incorrect. Specifically, Sadar stated that, "Our deposit growth in the last five and a half months was $3.3 billion -- less than our normal growth.
" Responding to international reports that some $20 billion had recently made its way out of Syria and into Lebanon since the start of the protests in March, Sadar said, "An outflow of $20 billion out of $28 billion -- you would see a quick breakdown of the system."
On Tuesday July 12, Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri issued a statement indicating that his Future Movement sympathizes with the people of Syria. Hariri stated that, "We think that what is happening in parts of Syria is an injustice.' In a remark directed toward President Assad Hariri stated, "No one is greater than his country
. The Syrians are the foundations of the country so you should protect them."
"Syria in the Shadow of Libyan Parallels
" - Asia Times
- An important read by Victor Kotsev. Kotsev cautions against comparing the situation in Syria to those of Libya and Egypt, noting that as the Syrian unrest progresses, the narratives used by international media become "clearer and neater" as "on the surface, the fault lines appear simple". The dominant narrative, according to Kotsev is "Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is sticking to his guns even as the pressure on him escalates and his legitimacy seemingly declines." However, as Kotsev and many analysts see it, with a "fragmented and opaque opposition, a growing sense of fear, frustration and foreign meddling" and little reason to believe that "a democratic transition can happen quickly and following a revolutionary model…the Syrian social fabric is in danger, and the basic issues and internal divisions can shift quickly if they haven't already started to do so." Kotsev also highlights the manner in which the conflict in Syria "is increasingly taking on a life of its own, independent from its original causes and fault lines." According to Kotsev, this reality is exacerbated by international meddling - including the "symbolic exchange of ultimatums between the Syrian government and Western powers" last week following Hillary Clinton's remarks that President Assad "is not indispensable", the specter of Turkish intervention, and Iranian efforts to 'cut losses' if the government shows signs of collapse. Kotsev makes a strong case for avoiding "simplistic narratives".
"Arab Silence at Syria Crackdown Speaks Volumes
" & "Analysis - Saudi Policy on Yemen and Syria Seen Floundering
" - Reuters
- In the former, Tom Pfeiffer and Shaimaa Fayed argue that the collapse of the Syrian government as a consequence of the country's revolution, would bring about the broader destabilization of the heart of the Middle East - and threaten the likes of Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with enlivened civil unrest. The leaders of these same countries also fear that should they express support for the Syrian movement only to see the revolution crushed, relations with Damascus would be irreparably severed. Political leaders the world over, have struggled to adopt a firm line in response to the Syrian crisis, as no one is positioned to predict the outcome of the unrest. The latter is a related clip covering the motivations behind the Saudi response, or lack there of, to the current situation in Syria.
"Fearful Syrians Use Coded Language to Mask Protest Activities
" - Los Angeles Times
- Years of monitoring and censorship have taught many how to skirt the system. Now ever popular, are code words used in telephone conversations and daily life, which allow dissidents to communicate about their political activities and leanings.
"Syria's Best-Known Dissident Reflects On Uprising
" - National Public Radio
- An July 8 interview with Michel Kilo, one of Syria's most well-known political dissidents, on NPR
. During the interview, Kilo credits Syrian youths for their bravery in organizing protests saying, "What the youth have managed to do is really enormous. They have managed to form a popular revolution." Comparing the country's older dissidents with the new generation, he says of the youths, "They are better, much better. They have organized the street and they are fighting for the street." An interesting and informed interview, Kilo also spoke of his decision not to participate in the government-led national dialogue.
"Syria: Did Man Film Himself Getting Shot by Sniper?
" - Global Voices Online
- An article detailing the debate over a video released two weeks ago, in which an individual thought to be filming a member of Syrian security forces shooting randomly at civilians, ends up filming his own death when the gunman turns the weapon on him. Initially, the video was widely thought to be legitimate. In the days following its release, however, a number of significant concerns about is authenticity came out - including in comments posted on YouTube
, where it was first shared.
"Syria's Assad & America's Decaying Credibility
" - The Huffington Post
- Former US Ambassador to Morocco, Marc Ginsberg, puts forth a scathing assessment of the US's response to the crackdown against protestors in Syria, and discusses the manner in which Syria is allegedly linked to the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many will find it an inflammatory read. Nonetheless, it sheds light on the foreign policy leanings of a broad swath of American politicians and analysts.
"The Hard Man of Damascus
" - Foreign Policy
- Gary Gambill evaluates the likelihood of President al-Assad's acceptance of "a peaceful transition to democracy" and adopts a harsh line of criticism against foreign policy that encourages Syrian dissidents to engage in dialogue with Syria's current government. According to Gambill, "there are no plausible circumstances under which a democratic transition would constitute a rational choice" for President Assad. Gambill discusses the issues that both enable and necessitate the country's security structure, sectarian issues that perpetuate the desire to maintain the status quo, the possibilities of a negotiated agreement between the government and the opposition, and the troubles of a pacted transition.
"West Needs to Treat Sanctions Against Syria with Caution
" - The National
- Despite its broad title, this article discusses only the implications of oil sanctions against Syria, arguing that if they are indeed imposed by the west, governments with troubling human rights records and minimal concerns for regulatory oversight, such as China, will problematically step in to fill the void - an arguably convenient assessment.
International Atomic Energy Agency
Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja'afari, reportedly said after the meeting that it "didn't come to any conclusion because the Security Council considers only matters related to threats to peace and security, not to prefabricated, unfounded accusations against a member state of the United Nations. The point is that there is no case for the Security Council to consider in its deliberations."
On July 11, Gulfsands Petroleum
(LON:GPX) announced that two of its wells in Syria have discovered "high quality oil reservoirs
". The wells are situated in the Khurbet East (KHE-19st) and Yousefieh (Yous-7) fields. In a statement to the press that day, the company's CEO, Ric Malcolm, said "We are pleased to have encountered high quality, oil bearing reservoirs in both the Yous-7 and KHE-19st wells and expect that these wells will soon add incremental volumes to the production capacity of the Khurbet East and Yousefieh fields." The Yous-7 field's gross production is over 1 million barrels, while the KHE-19st field is over 15 million barrels. According to the company, the projected combined production of both fields for 2011, is an estimated 24,000 barrels of oil per day.
Cruise lines abandon Syrian calls