April 13, 2011 - Syria in the News: A Roundup of International Reportage

In the News | 13-04-2011

Syria's Protest Movement

Over the course of the last week, the Syrian government announced a number of reforms intended in part to appease the country's Sunni Muslim majority.

On Wednesday, it lifted a ban imposed less than a year ago on niqab-wearing teachers. The niqab was controversially banned in the classroom last summer under the premise that displays of religious conservatism ran counter to government efforts to protect secularism in Syria. Though it affected a small number of people (estimated at around 1,200), it was a move that angered many - so much so, that recent demonstrations in Baniyas specifically called for a lifting of the ban. For more information on the original decision to ban the niqab, see here and here

The government also officially announced that it was closing the country's only casino, the Ocean Club, which is located outside of Damascus near the airport. As gambling in Syria is prohibited by national legislation, the move to open the casino was poorly received by the country's more conservative elements. Pressure to close the facility had been mounting months prior to the unrest here and as a result, the club's gaming tables were impounded well over a month ago. Yet, as the government's reversal of policy was politically embarrassing before the onslaught of the unrest here, the move had not yet been announced. Phil Sands, one of the few foreign journalists still working here, wrote about the closure of the casino as well as the lifting of the niqab ban for The National last week.  
On Thursday, the President issued Decree 49 that granted citizenship rights to thousands of Syrian Kurds who have been registered as foreigners in Syria since a 1962 census in the governorate of Hassakeh arbitrarily stripped them of their citizenship. The survey claimed that because some Syrian Kurds had fled from Turkey to Syria decades earlier, they were not actually Syrian citizens. Decree 49 is expected to impact around an estimated 100,000 though another 150,000 Kurds remain outside of the system. If and how the government will address that issue is not yet clear. Later that day, the President also sacked the governor of Homs, Iyad Ghazaleh. 
Amid all such announcements of significant government reform, hundreds of protestors took to the streets in the suburbs around Damascus in an effort to raise awareness of the after-prayers protests planned for the following day. Douma, the scene of serious violence the week before, was overtaken by protestors who had come from around the country to pay their respects for those who were killed days earlier. Security was high around the perimeters and entry points into the city - but apparently conspicuously absent from the gathering. 
Friday was the most significant and indeed the biggest day of demonstrations thus far in Syria. Thousands came out in cities across the country to call for reform. The largest of the demonstrations were in Lattakia, Homs, Tartous, Banias, Daraa, Damascus, and Idlib in in the northwest. In Harasta, a Damascus suburb, there were reports of gunfire and rumors that three people were shot and killed and another 12 injured. Two more people reportedly died in protests in Homs. 
Despite the government's concessions to the Syrian Kurdish population only the day before, Kurds in the country's east carried out demonstrations on Friday - a strong indication that government reform efforts thus far, are not succeeding in bringing about the desired return to calm.  
International reports of violence during Friday's after-prayers rallies put the death toll at 37 with the worst of the day's violence happening in Daraa where according to some sources, at least 27 stone-throwing protestors were shot and killed with rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition. According to local media, 75 members of government security forces were injured and another 19 were killed. Official sources blame "armed groups which used live ammunition" for the violence. 
In a significant turn of events, on Saturday morning SANA published a statement from the Ministry on Interior, warning citizens to bring an end to their demonstrations. The statement took a somewhat exasperated tone, pointing out that the government was working to respond to the demands of protestors but that some "spiteful individuals, outsiders and those who were compelled by known foreign parties, accompanied by blatant instigation by satellite channels and internet sites" were nevertheless continuing to provoke unrest. Critically, the Ministry then stated that "there is no more room for leniency or tolerance in enforcing law, preserving security of country and citizens and protecting general order under the pretext of demonstration". 
The same day, Samira al-Masalmeh the editor of government-owned newspaper Tishreen, confirmed that she was fired following critical remarks she made on Al Jazeera regarding the use of live ammunition against protestors by the government's security forces. 
In Daraa, there was more violence as security forces were rumored to have shot at participants in mass funerals. US President Barack Obama responded to news of the violence in Syria with a statement condemning Friday's crackdown as "abhorrent."
On Sunday, there were a number of killings in Baniyas. According to local media, nine people were killed - including two officers - when armed groups ambushed an armed forces unit as it passed through Baniyas on its way to Lattakia. A number of international sources stated that between four people were killed when individuals holding sticks and protecting a local mosque, were fired upon by in passing vehicles. Others claim that armed gangs were responsible for the violence and though theories abound regarding the membership and motivations of the gangs, there is a critical dearth of reliable information. 
Later Sunday evening, protestors in Daraa staged a sit-in as most schools and government buildings ceased to operate. Mourners in Douma also took to the streets. The National Organization for Human rights now as well as the "Damascus Declaration," a statement signed by important Syrian opposition figures and submitted to the Arab League, both place the official death toll since the start of the unrest here at over 200
In response to the violence in Baniyas over the weekend and on Sunday, the army was deployed to the coastal city on Monday morning and 22 people were arrested while funerals for the people killed on Sunday were carried out. Importantly, events in Baniyas over the last four days have been difficult for media sources to confirm as internet access, electricity and telephones were cut over much of the city. According to some in the international media, on Monday, shooting could still be heard in the Al-Nabe'a district of Baniyas. Further, as residents of the nearby village of Bayda had reportedly provided refuge for protestors trying to escape from Baniyas and were likewise allegedly planning a protest themselves, international reports state they were soon overtaken by security forces. According to the New York Times, homes were raided by security forces with residents taken out to the streets and beaten. 
Meanwhile in Damascus, a small group of about 200 students came out to protest in front of the College of Sciences, University of Damascus. International reports suggest that the catalyst for the demonstration was the assault on veiled university students by policemen. The attack on the female students was portrayed quite differently by state media. Others suggest that the protests were not related to the attacks. The demonstration was dispersed by security forces and one student was reportedly beaten to death. Local media, however, strongly deny reports of the killing. 
The National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of Syria's political parties with a central role in Baath Party leadership, issued a statement on Monday indicating that "nowadays, Syria is confronting serious challenges by foreign conspiracies and pressures which aim at benefiting from the changes taking place in the region to serve their hostile plots and undermine Syria's national and principled stances towards supporting resistance against hegemonic interests and Israeli expansion policies." The statement distinguished between Syrian citizens desirous of reform and "their legitimate demands" and the actions of "trained and funded conspiracy figures with the aim of undermining Syria's reputation and weakening its pan-Arab and national stances." The NPF again attributed recent violence to "subversive gangs that were provoked to kill citizens and security personnel…in an attempt to create chaos." 
British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Italian Foreign Secretary Franco Frattini met in London on Monday and later called on President Bashar al-Assad "to respect the right to free speech and to peaceful protest" noting that the government here must implement "meaningful political reform which is the only legitimate response to demands from the Syrian people." 
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed frustration similar to that heard all over Syria and throughout the international media, stating that the US government does not "have very credible information coming from Syria…It’s very hard to get a clear picture about what’s going on on the ground." He went on to "condemn the violence that we have been able to hear about against peaceful protestors by the Syrian authorities." 
On Tuesday, the heads of Damascus's Christian churches issued a statement that said that in light of recent events in Syria and in honor of the people who died as a result of them, "Easter celebrations will be only limited to prayers and religious rites in churches." 
Disturbing reports also emerged on Tuesday, suggesting that civilians injured in violence during protests are not being permitted to seek medical assistance. Human Rights Watch is among the international organizations making this claim. However, local media responded to those accusations today April 13, stating all such reports were "completely false" and that "armed men" from local villages and towns were responsible for blocking entry into hospitals and stopping ambulances en route to hospitals.   
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney made a statement expressing that the US government is "deeply concerned by reports that Syrians who have been wounded by their government are being denied access to medical care." Carney's statement went on to say that "(t)he escalating repression by the Syrian government is outrageous, and the United States strongly condemns the continued efforts to suppress peaceful protesters."
On Tuesday night, international media reported that the city of Baniyas was again under attack by security forces. Reports of who is responsible for the violence in Baniyas and indeed in all of the hotspots here in Syria, remain conflictual, though a particular group has been repeatedly blamed. Additionally, an estimated 600 Kurds organized a peaceful hour-long demonstration in Ayn al-Arab, a northern village, to call for the release of political prisoners and further reforms. International media also report that intense gunfire could be heard in Bayda Tuesday night.
As violence becomes the principle means of managing the unrest here, anger levels amongst average citizens are clearly rising. International media and analysts consistently emphasize that the situation here runs the risk of spiraling into deeper violent unrest, as those who initially had no desire for revolutionary-style protests in Syria, become enraged by the rising death toll of unarmed civilians. 
Further reading:
"Protests on the Rise Again in Syria" - a report from Jadaliyya Affiliate in Damascus - a particularly insightful assessment of the complexity of the situation here, written after the protests on Friday April 8. 
"Syria's President Assad: Why is Anyone Surprised?" - a statement by former Canadian Ambassador to Syria, Brian J. Davis, for Syria Comment.
"Syria's Race Against the Clock," Foreign Policy - an assessment of the choices the government and Syrian people will be forced to make in the coming days, weeks and months. 
"Prisoner of Damascus," New York Times - an opinion piece by Yassin al-Haj Saleh.
"The Shameful Arab Silence on Syria," The Daily Star - an assessment of the reluctance of Arab satellite TV stations to cover the unrest in Syria. 
"Political Turmoil in Syria Resonates in Golan," Associated Press - report exploring the reactions of people living under Israeli occupation to strife in Syria. 
"Protests in Syria: A Cycle of Violence May Take Hold," The Economist  - an unsettling assessment of the prospects for future violence in Syria.
"Factbox: Syrian President Assad's Emboldened Opponents," Reuters - a backgrounder on members of Syrian opposition groups.  
Now, for the remainder of the weekly international news roundup.
Politics & Diplomacy
Last Wednesday, President al-Assad held a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, during which Davutoglu expressed Turkey's strong support for all of the Syrian government's reform efforts and its willingness to help in whatever way possible, the expediting of further reforms. The same day, the President also received a phone call from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev who likewise expressed his support for the reform process in Syria. 
On April 9, Michael Aoun, the Lebanese MP and head of the Change and Reform bloc, described relations between Syria and Lebanon as "excellent" and stated that both sides were cooperating on shared security issues. Two days later, a number of Syrian expats in Russia gathered in the country's capital to express their support for the Syrian regime. 
The President met with Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov on Sunday to discuss recent unrest in Syria. During the meeting, Mladenov encouraged further reform in Syria and emphasized the importance of maintaining the country's stability. President Assad made clear that Syria is "on a course of comprehensive reform."
On Monday, the President received a letter from Jordan's King Abdullah II on the topic of unrest throughout the Middle East and relations between Jordan and Syria. The letter expressed the King's desire to maintain strong and cooperative relations between the two countries. The letter was delivered to the President in the context of related meetings between high-level Jordanian and Syrian officials aimed at discussing their bilateral relations. The same day, Mohammed Khaddour was sworn in as the Syrian ambassador to Australia.
In the last 8 days, a number of countries around the world have also came forward with travel warnings for citizens in, or considering traveling to, Syria - including Korea, Australia and the United Kingdom
Economic Development & Trade
On Wednesday April 6, two international exhibitions were kicked off in Syria: the International Industrial Equipment and Machinery Exhibition  and the International Exhibition for Veterinary Products and Livestock Supplies.
Written by: Evelyn Aissa
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