September 22, 2011 - Syria News Blog: A Roundup of International Reportage
In the News | 23-09-2011
The Syrian Revolution
On September 18, the Syrian opposition held a crucial six-hour meeting in Syria, bringing young protest organizers and demonstrators together with well-known older generations of dissidents. While meeting participants called upon Syrians to continue protesting in peace, international reportage from around the week suggested that the numbers of protestors out on the streets are dwindling while those still willing to fight for the cause, are increasingly taking up arms. At the same time, rights groups Avaaz and Insan released a report indicating that the death toll from the unrest could be as high as 5,360 - not the 3,004 reported just a week earlier.
Protests, security crackdowns
Last week, as government-run media focused on the start of the national dialogue, security crackdowns against members of the opposition continued with UN officials charging that over 100 people were killed during the course of the week.
On Friday September 16, security forces moved to crush ongoing after-prayer's protests, reportedly killing between 26 and 44 people - all reportage on the day's events remains conflictual. Friday's violence was worst along the country's border with Turkey, though some six civilians were killed during a raid in a village not far from the country's border with Jordan. The villagers were, according to foreign media, hiding some 400 army defectors in the area. Local media reported that security forces were first fired upon by armed groups in the village. The raid reportedly occurred in the early hours of the morning.
Friday's violence included four reported deaths in and around the capital Damascus, as well as nine deaths in both Homs and Hama and at least three in Idlib province.
Foreign media reported that between Tuesday and Friday of last week, 153 people were arrested in Zabadani - a town northwest of Damascus.
On Monday September 19, international media reported that six people were killed during security raids - five in Homs and one in Lattakia. A woman was among the dead.
On Wednesday, Local Coordination Committees reported that a dozen students were detained in the village of Jassem in the country's south and that a number of schools in Zamalka, Arbeen and Harasta were surrounded by military forces following student protests. Three civilians in Homs were also reportedly shot and killed on Wednesday.
Reports suggest that the number of people taking to the streets in recent weeks has declined as military forces, armored vehicles and tanks are still deployed as the primary means of responding to the unrest and calls for reform. Meanwhile, the human rights group Avaaz and its partner Insan, issued a report on Wednesday September 21, indicating that some 5,360 people have been killed since the start of the revolution in March. According to the report, while some 3,004 people had been killed in 127 locations in the country with their deaths and identities officially recorded and confirmed, another 2,356 people had been registered as dead but had not yet been officially verified. The new number reportedly reflects those individuals. For a full UN assessment of Avaaz's projections, see here.
Syrian opposition establishes national council, urges on protestors
On Thursday September 15, members of the Syrian opposition announced the establishment of a national council during a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey. The council is charged with conveying "the Syrian people’s just problems on the international platform, to form a pluralist and democratic state” - according to the Associated Press. In a statement to the press Syrian exile, Basma Kadmani explained that, “The political vision of the council will give a push to the escalation of the revolutionary work we are seeing. This group, based on previous initiatives and on what the street is demanding, is calling for the downfall of the regime with all of its limbs.” To view a video of the official announcement, click here.
Some 140 individuals have been named to the council, encompassing a broad spectrum of the country's demographics. The names of those individuals named to the council who currently reside in Syria, were not published in an effort to protect their safety. While the opposition has tried on a number of occasions to organize such a group, this is the first time that such efforts succeeded. However, the national council has yet to announce an executive body.
In response to the opposition's move toward unification, US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner issued a statement in support of the opposition stating, "We look forward to the opposition strengthening as it agrees on things like a unified leadership structure, as it builds consensus and articulates a vision for the future of Syria that incorporates rule of law, government by consent of the people and equal rights, as well as economic opportunities for all Syrian citizens. It is certainly not our role to determine what the leadership looks like or what directive its actions or dictate its policies. But we do applaud their efforts under these kinds of conditions."
On Sunday, members of the Syrian opposition issued a statement following an unprecedented meeting just outside of Damascus, calling on the Syrian government to bring an end to its use of violence against Syrian civilians and urging protestors to continue taking to the streets - in peace. The statement also expressed concern over the possibility of foreign intervention and reiterated the opposition's guiding concept of the "three no's": "No to international intervention, no sectarianism, and no violence."
Sunday's six-hour meeting marked a rare convergence of older Syrian dissidents and young organizers in the same place in Syria. Though security forces attempted to enter the meeting house (reportedly a farm house) they were turned away at the door. Most surprisingly, they did not make any arrests following the conclusion of the meeting.
Such moves toward unity among the opposition seem to be threatened by dwindling protestor numbers out on the streets. Recognizing that the threat of imprisonment and/or death is a profound deterrent, organizers are reportedly adopting new techniques. In Damascus, for example, would-be demonstrators have taken to releasing thousands of ping-pong balls labeled "Bashar must go" onto the streets.
Shift toward violent opposition?
On Friday September 16, international media reported that Syrian protestors who had engaged in largely peaceful means of opposition since March, are increasingly resorting to violence - noting that the shift might mark the start of protracted conflict.
According to the same reportage, there has been a spike in armed clashes in Homs, in the suburbs of Damascus, in the north along the border with Turkey, and in the Houran region in the country's south. While state-run Syrian media has always maintained that military and security forces are coming under attack by members of the Syrian opposition - such reportage, until recent weeks, was largely considered baseless. However, growing numbers of foreign officials and diplomats in Syria have spoken of fighting between military forces and deserters as well as serious ambushes of military vehicles near Homs. Foreign officials report that there are armed insurgencies in Idlib and Homs, and more sporadically in Daraa as well as in Deir ez-Zor.
As with all such reports, it is impossible to confirm the accuracy of the information and the context in which any such events occurred. However, given the deepening stalemate between the government and the opposition and in light of the government's use of extreme force against unarmed populations, it would not be surprising if such reports were indeed correct. Peter Harling, an analyst for the International Crisis Group stated of the prospects of the opposition resorting to the use of violence, “It is quite simply a trap that the protesters will fall in.” Some activists reportedly agree.
Foreign reportage also suggests that security forces have adopted a more targeted and intensive approach to quelling the unrest - now focusing on capturing and in some cases killing, the "entire leadership of the protest movement". Harling explained the government's new technique, stating that “Quite simply, the regime is raising the costs of peaceful demonstrations to force protesters either to quit, in which case it wins, or to resort to weapons, in which case it could corroborate its narrative of a seditious insurgency and probably win also.”
Foreign officials have also put numbers on the army defections - speculating that perhaps some 10,000 had done so and that some, numbering in the hundreds, had formed two rival groups: the Free Syrian Army and the Free Officers Movement.
Red Crescent worker caught in heavy gunfire succumbs to injuries
On Friday September 16, Syrian Arab Red Crescent worker Hakam Sibai died from injuries sustained a week earlier. Sibai had been evacuating an injured person from violence in Homs when his Red Crescent ambulance came under heavy gunfire. To view a video of the ambulance post-attack, see here. To view videos of the funeral for Sibai in Homs, click here and here.
Sibai's death sparked broad-scale international condemnation. On September 16, the International Committee of the Red Cross released a statement regarding his death stating: "Yesterday, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer succumbed to his wounds almost one week after being injured in the course of performing his duties. It is completely unacceptable that volunteers who are helping to save other people's lives end up losing their own."
According to reports, two other volunteers sustained injuries during the same attack. This is not the first time that Red Crescent workers and their vehicles have come under attack whilst operating in Syria.
Parents of Syrian-American pianist and composer Malek Jandali attacked
In late July, Syrian-American pianist and composer Malek Jandali performed his song, "I Am My Homeland," calling for freedom for the Syrian people and all others who are oppressed, at a rally in front of the White House. (The song itself was indeed surrounded in controversy - for more information, see here.) His parents still in Syria, were reportedly brutally beaten in retribution, two days later. Last week, gruesome images of Jandali's mother and father after the attack were posted on Facebook. Jandali's mother is currently in the US undergoing medical procedures to recover from the attack. His father remains in Syria.
Jordanian rights groups term Syrian violence 'genocide'
Last week, five Jordanian human rights groups, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights (AOHR), Jordan Association to Support the Syrian People, the Islamic Action Front’s (IAF) human rights committee, the National Committee to Defend Jordanian Detainees (NCDJD) and Jordan Youth to Protect Syria, held a press conference on the Syrian government's alleged human rights violations. The groups collectively termed the killing of Syrian protestors as "genocide" and called upon the International Criminal Court to monitor and document the crimes and the broader international community to work to bring an immediate end to the "mass killings".
Additionally, the organizations announced that some 253 Jordanian prisoners are being held in Syria - with no Jordanian officials able to establish their whereabouts or health conditions. An estimated 250 Syrian families have also reportedly taken refuge along the Jordanian side of the two countries' borders since the start of the unrest in March.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon approach 4,000
According to a UN Development Programme report released on Friday September 16, the number of registered Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon is now over 3,580 - with some 600 arriving in the first seven days of September. Most have fled violence in the border town of Tal Kalakh and the central city of Homs.
UN Human Rights Council has list of 50 individuals suspected of committing crimes against humanity
On Monday September 19 in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council, Kyung-wha Kang, deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that her office was prepared to furnish a list of some 50 individuals linked to alleged crimes against humanity in Syria to the International Criminal Court - should such information be requested.
International Politics & Diplomacy:
Turkey to Iran: do not "spoil" Syrian leaders, to Syria: "those who inflict repression…will not be able to stand on their feet"
On Friday September 16, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly called on on Iran "not to spoil" the Syrian government, stating in an interview with Hurriyet, “I cannot say there has been tension with Iran but we warned them [the Iranians] that ‘the Assad administration is getting spoiled with your encouragement.’”
The same day, whilst before a crowds in Tripoli, Libya, Erdogan made a statement directed toward the Syrian government, "Do not forget this: those in Syria who inflict repression on the people will not be able to stand on their feet because oppression and prosperity cannot exist together." Erdogan's comment came at the end of an official tour of North Africa.
Ambassador Ford - more Facebook diplomacy
On Friday September 16, US Ambassador Ford issued another Facebook note, this time taking on a number of criticisms of US foreign policy and actions in Syria. Abbreviated versions of his responses are as follows:
"Ghazal Mahran rightly points out that the 'mission of any army in the world is to maintain security and stability.' No one would criticize the Syrian security forces for maintaining security and stability if they did so in a manner that respected human rights and were held security accountable for human rights violations. The criticism from the UN, the Arab League, the EU, the US and many other countries is that the Syrian security forces are in most instances killing unarmed protesters who are certainly not 'terrorists.' Perhaps the biggest difference now between the Syrian regime and most of the international community is that the regime has not acknowledged that its forces are often killing unarmed protesters…
"Issam Souria calls US policy 'mind-boggling' because in Iraq and Afghanistan 'over 7000 US soldiers lost their lives fighting terrorism and Muslim extremists, but in Syria you call the same terrorists and extremists ‘freedom and democracy activists.' To be clear: the U.S. does not support extremism and we have not provided assistance in any way to armed groups… We do…strongly support the right of peaceful protesters to express their opinions and to march peacefully in Syria or in other countries….
"Michael Vitez falsely claims that 'the US has released terrorists from Iraqi prisons to attack the Syrian people.' We do not control prisons in Iraq, and we have not sent anyone from Iraq to Syria. … The question now is how to stop the terrible bloodshed in Syria and achieve a genuine political transition. I respectfully suggest that a big part of that requires distinguishing between moderates and extremists and not killing/arresting/torturing the moderates."
To read the note in full, click here.
Lebanon will not support UN resolution against Syria
On Saturday September 17, Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour stated that Lebanon will not support a UN resolution against Syria. In his statement, Mansour asserted that the security situation in Syria has improved in recent weeks and that Syrian soldiers and members of the security forces would not be dying if claims that the opposition was unarmed were true.
Syrian Ambassador to US Imad Moustapha interviewed on CNN
On Friday September 17, Syria's ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, did an interview with CNN's Hala Gorani to discuss the country's current political crisis. The interview was Moustapha's first since the start of the revolution back in March.
On the issue of the growing death toll following security crackdowns, Moustapha told Gorani, "People - people give numbers in…a very, very unrealistic way. Those numbers are never substantiated, because this is what suits the Western media here. …These are blatant lies. This is the problem we are facing today in Syria - a massive campaign of disinformation and lies."
Responding to Gorani's question about the large numbers of fatalities among Syrian civilians, including young children, Moustapha replied: "Many of those children happened to be families of military men and of policemen that were brutally murdered. Now, it's not only the murder, it's what happens after their brutal killing. They dismember their bodies. Even a family - a family in of mine, a relation to me, OK, he was not only shot, but he was divided into three pieces and his core was sent to his wife - three pieces. Three of my friends were also murdered. What I'm trying to tell you is what's happening today in Syria is similar to what has happened in Iraq when brutal groups will attack, Sunni groups, Sunni mosques and Shiite mosques so that they will incite civil war in Iraq."
Following a question regarding the identities of those individuals taking to the streets and accusations by the Syrian government that there is "some fundamentalist Islamist extremist armed movement that is trying to destabilize the country," Moustapha stated that, "If you are talking about peaceful protesters…We believe that their demands are legitimate and we are addressing their demands in a comprehensive way. Here is my challenge to those guys who are criticizing us. Syria is implementing, right now, as we speak, unprecedented political reforms. By the time - I - I believe by February next year, the - the political scene in Syria will be unparalleled across the Arab world…"
Later in the interview, Moustapha continued with his defense of the Syrian government's response to the uprising asserting that, "If you are in opposition in Syria and you are about political opposition, about opposing every policy of the Syrian government, you are okay. You are welcome. The new laws in Syria would allow you to form your own political party. The new media law is the most liberal law today in the whole Arab world…This is new. It was not the case before. But this is the new reality in Syria. We have announced town hall meetings, town hall style meetings across Syria for a national dialogue that has been attended by the opposition. And the sort of things they are saying is something that has - I have never ever heard before inside Syria. I'm telling you how the reality is changing and how the context is changing. We are having a new election law and we are having a new - a new part. …Next February, we are having a multi-party, democratic, transparent election. Let the representatives of the Syrian people, who will be elected, let them decide what they want for Syria, not those who hide their faces and tell you stories."
To read a full transcript of the interview or watch a video of it, follow this link.
US Department of State issues emergency message for US citizens
On September 18, the US Department of State issued an emergency message for US citizens, urging those "in Syria to depart immediately while commercial transportation is available."
The message continued, "Given the ongoing uncertainty and volatility of the current situation, U.S. citizens who must remain in Syria are advised to limit nonessential travel within the country. U.S. citizens not in Syria should defer all travel to Syria at this time. On August 18, the U.S. imposed additional sanctions against the Government of Syria restricting financial or material support by U.S. citizens or residents to the Government of Syria. This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning for Syria issued on August 5, 2011, to provide updated information on the impact recent sanctions on Syria may have on U.S. citizens and residents conducting business in Syria, and to provide updated information on the security situation in Syria."
On the issue of US sanctions against Syria and their impact on US citizens, the message stated that it is no longer legal for US citizens to work in Syria - nor engage in basic monetary transactions such as paying taxes and public utility fees:
"On August 18, several countries, including the United States, called upon the Syrian president to step aside…These sanctions prohibit U.S. citizens or residents from making payments or providing any material support to the Government of Syria, providing services to Syria, or making new investments in Syria. U.S. citizens and residents should be aware that, under the current sanctions, activities such as working (i.e. providing services) in Syria or paying business or employment-related fees to the Syrian government (e.g. taxes, licensing fees, public utility charges, etc.) are violations of U.S. law. U.S. banks and credit card companies are also prohibited from providing services, drastically limiting U.S. citizens’ and residents’ ability to withdraw cash or conduct commercial transactions. However, U.S. persons residing in Syria are authorized to pay their personal living expenses in Syria and to engage in other transactions, including with the Government of Syria, that are ordinarily incident and necessary to their personal maintenance within Syria…"
For all official US Department of Treasury documents on US sanctions against Syria, see here.
Iraq's al-Maliki denies reports that he called for Assad to step down
On September 20, The New York Times reported that Ali al-Moussawi, adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said in an interview with The Times on Tuesday that President Assad should step down from his position. However, less than 24 hours later, Moussawi denied all such reports.
US-Turkey in alignment on Syria issue, Turkey readying sanctions against Syria
US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held bilateral meetings in New York on September 20 and agreed to "increase pressure" against Syrian President Assad - though precise details of what that might entail are not yet known. Following the meetings, the leaders reportedly emphasized the"alignment" in their "assessments of the situation in Syria".
At the same time, Erdogan made a number of key statements regarding relations between Syria and Turkey asserting that, “I terminated my contacts with the Syrian administration. We never wished to arrive this point but unfortunately the Syrian administration has led us here."
Erdogan also stated that Turkey is readying sanctions against Syria and will levy them in coordination with the US government.
Arab League ministers call on regional states to freeze Damascus's membership
On Tuesday September 20, the foreign ministers of the Arab League met in Cairo and announced that the League was calling "on the Arab states to freeze the membership of Damascus in the Arab League and urge the Arab leaders to take more active stands in that regard if the Syrian leadership did not... stop violence and withdraw its security forces and army... and form a national unity government from all political powers".
President Obama calls on UN to impose sanctions against Syria
During an address to the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday September 21, President Obama called upon the UN to impose sanctions against the Syrian government asserting that, "For the sake of Syria - and the peace and security of the world - we must speak with one voice. Now is the time for the United Nations Security Council to sanction the Syrian regime, and to stand with the Syrian people."
Obama went on to state that, "As we meet here today, men, women and children are being tortured, detained and murdered by the Syrian regime. Thousands have been killed, many during the holy time of Ramadan. Thousands more have poured across Syria's borders. The question for us is clear: Will we stand with the Syrian people, or with their oppressors?"
For the full text of Obama's speech, see here.
Economic Development & International Trade:
Syrian economy to shrink 2% according to International Monetary Fund
According to the World Economic Outlook September 2011 report issued by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on September 20, the Syrian economy is set to shrink by some two percent in 2011 as a direct result of the country's deepening revolutionary turmoil. Back in April, the IMF had predicted that the country's economy would grow by some three percent.
Syrian exports to neighboring Turkey drop
In the first seven months of 2011, Syrian exports to Turkey declined by some seven percent whilst Turkish exports to Syria during the same period grew by 1.4 percent. The most notable fluctuation occurred in June when Syrian exports to Turkey dropped by some 59.3 percent to just USD 48 million compared to the same month last year. Turkish exports to Syria in the same month declined by 18.1 percent to just USD 113 million compared to 2010.
Damascus International Film Festival 2011 cancelled
On September 19, sources at the National Film Organization in Damascus reported that the Damascus International Film Festival 2011 has been officially cancelled due to the country's deepening security problems. The festival was scheduled for this fall. The festival was established by Syrian film director Muhammad Shahin in 1979. Since the start of the unrest in Syria in March, cultural activities - previously on the rise - have largely been cancelled. Foreign cultural institutes across the country have closed their doors, theatre and opera performances have dropped, and foreign performers have cancelled their trips to the country.
"Is Civil War in Syria Inevitable?" - The Atlantic - An important read. Hussein Ibish argues that while the majority of the Syrian opposition has maintained a peaceful approach to calling for the fall of the Syrian government, the failure of such efforts to bring about any real change in the country is leading some to consider the possibility of insurrection. As Ibish sees it, "the drift towards conflict is starting to feel palpable". Central to Ibish's perspective, is the view that the "most important factor pushing Syria in the direction of civil conflict may be that the Assad regime has left the opposition few other options for anything resembling success. The largely nonviolent protests have brought nothing in the way of serious reform or to weaken the regime's grip on power…If anything, the regime seems to have consistently worsened its behavior...the nonviolent tactic has been almost all pain with very little gain. At some point, other options will have to be considered - or the fight against Assad abandoned."
"Syria’s Endemic Corruption" - Institute for War and Peace Reporting - Ghassam Ibrahim, founder of the Global Arab Network, discusses Syria's corruption woes and his perspective on why the country's revolutionaries will not stop until the government is overthrown.
"The Arab Autumn: Three Big Challenges Threatening the Arab Uprisings" - Counterpunch - Esam al-Amin evaluates the "three crucial predicaments" that connect the Arab revolutions - regardless of their great disparities: 1) "the revolutionaries are not in charge; 2) the role of Islam in society, and; 3) the role of foreign powers.
"Syria Army Defector Hussein Harmoush in TV 'Confession'" - BBC - Lt. Col Hussein al-Harmoush allegedly defected from the Syrian army a number of months ago - becoming the first high-ranking officer to do so. Though he had taken up residence in a Turkish refugee camp, he recently returned to Syria amid considerable controversy and is disputing much of the reportage on his alleged reasons for defected and returning.
"US Underwhelmed with Emerging Powers At UN" - National Public Radio - India, South Africa and Brazil are all emerging international powers with temporary seats on the UN Security Council. Their recent track records at the UN in response to the crisis in Syria, has left US officials and indeed a number of high-level international human rights organizations deeply concerned about their approach to responding to major political and humanitarian crises.
"US Is Quietly Getting Ready for Syria Without Assad" - New York Times - US Department of State officials reportedly no longer believe that President Assad will survive the current revolution and have begun making plans for a post-Assad Syria.
"The Syrian News Roundup" - Maysaloon (blog) - Well-respected Syrian expat blogger and member of the opposition Maysaloon offers up his own take on news about Syria. His interpretations generally run counter to those found in the news roundups put forth by writers at Syria Comment - another well-known blog covering Syrian news that is increasingly criticized for its sympathies toward the current Syrian government.
"Arab Talk Interview with Jadaliyya Co-editor Bassam Haddad on Syria and Arab Uprising" - Jadaliyya - An interview (audio file) with the editor of Jadaliyya on the status of the Arab Spring and the particularities of the Syrian case. Haddad's comments on Syria begin at the 12-minute-mark and constitute a great backgrounder for those concerned.
"Sanctions Won't End Syria's Repression" - Wall Street Journal - A compelling critique of the use of sanctions against Syria to pressure the government into changing its behavior. Author Hicham el-Moussaoui argues that 1) "sanctions will not be efficient in the short term because Syria is not well integrated in the global economy"; 2) assumptions that sanctions will "deprive the regime of support from the Syrian business community" are "misguided", and; 3) any belief that sanctions will cause the government to question its behavior, overlooks the reality that the government by its very nature has no interest in working for the benefit of the Syrian people.
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