April 6, 2011 - Syria in the News: A Roundup of International Reportage

In the News | 05-04-2011

Highlight

Fraught with troubles, the events of last week were significant as they suggest that recent unrest in Syria is unlikely to come to an end in the near future. 

On Wednesday,  President Bashar al-Assad made an address to the nation that attributed recent violence to the actions of "conspirators" and left many key questions with regard to government reforms unanswered.  

After his address, a number of cities around the country were soon the scenes of further "angry" protests, including in Daraa and Lattakia - where reports suggest that protestors were fired upon.

The UK's Foreign Secretary William Hague was quick to respond to the events by expressing that he was "deeply concerned" by the violence and that he "strongly" encouraged the government to respond by moving forward with reform.

Perhaps in an effort to address concerns about the absence of clear detail in the President's speech on the 30th, the government announced on Thursday a number of more specific government plans for possible reform and for investigating the deaths in Daraa and Lattakia - among them, the creation of a committee to analyze approaches to protecting the security of the population (i.e. the emergency law) and another to consider the possibilities of extending citizenship rights to the country's large Kurdish population. For details on all of such announcements, follow this link. The international media's response to announcements of potential reforms here was largely skeptical.

On Friday, many protestors came out in cities across the country following morning prayers. While the locations in which protests occurred increased, the actual numbers of participants were smaller than hoped for by activists. Lattakia and Daraa had the largest showings and violence ensued in a number of locations - Douma, Damascus and the aforementioned cities among them. Deaths were reported in Damascus, Douma, Daraa, and Lattakia, among others. While local media reported that "armed gangs" were responsible for the shootings and fatalities in Douma, Homs, Daraa and Lattakia, international media reported a very different story - particularly with respect to Lattakia. Internationally and locally, there is increasing concern about the possibility of sectarianism motivating current and future violence in Syria.

In one of the more interesting bits of international coverage of the situation that encapsulates the international media's struggle to report on what is happening here in Syria, Al Jazeera reporters walked the streets of Damascus's Old City dressed as tourists in an effort to observe Friday's protests. Unsurprisingly, their mission was abruptly halted by security.  For more on the day's events, see here.

On Saturday morning, media reported that police raided homes across the country in search of suspected dissidents. Large numbers were detained. Protests continued throughout the day - particularly in Douma, where hundreds gathered to chant "Freedom."

President Assad issued a decree on Sunday that tasked Adel Safar, the previous adminstration's agricultural minister, with forming the country's new cabinet and on Monday, he appointed Mohammad Khaled al-Hannusa the new governor in Daraa. The same day, a group on Facebook termed the week the "Week of Martyrs" and called for more protests around the country on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.  Khaled al-Hariri, a Reuters photographer based in Syria, was also released from prison following six days of detention as was Suhair Atassi, a rights activist detained during a protest weeks earlier.

On Tuesday, two police were shot dead near Douma (for reasons unknown at this time) and the government suspended upcoming football matches - a move likely intended to reduce the risk of more protests. Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a rights group, also increased the group's estimate of the total number of fatalities here in recent unrest to 173 people. 

Analysis of the recent unrest here in Syria put forth by the international media continues to vary widely. Some examples:

In a Los Angeles Times article, analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Lahcen Achy, attributes the protests to anger over "economic hardship" noting that though the country has experienced a strong economic growth rate of five percent over the preceding same number of years, five key issues detract from its progress: 

1) rapid population growth (estimated at 2.5% annually) and the corresponding entrance of a quarter of a million new job-seekers into the locally economy - which only creates about 20,000 new jobs a year; 

2) droughts that have ravaged agricultural output leading to a 25 percent decline production (approximately 20 percent of both the work force and the GDP are derived from the agricultural industry) which in turn, has prompted more of the rural poor to migrate to urban areas where they struggle to find employment; 

3) a private sector dominated by big businesses all connected to the government, a large informal economy that has developed in response to oppressive bureaucracy, corruption, and limited access to the capital required to start businesses (interestingly, the author cites a statistic from the World Bank 2010 Doing Business survey that ranked Syria 181 out of 183 countries in its assessment of credit accessibility - however, the same report in 2011 shows some improvement - putting Syria at 168 out of 183);

4) a drop in oil revenues (from around 14 percent GDP ten years ago, to only about four percent in 2010) and a resulting cut in government social spending - noting that the government has not been able to use tax revenues to offset costs, and;

5) a stark increase in income inequality - while average monthly wages increased over 20 percent in the three years between 2006 and 2009, gains were effectively eliminated by rising inflation and those with higher levels of education experienced more wage increases than those with less - but, an estimated 60 percent of the labor force can be categorized as having achieved only low levels of education.

Robert Baer, a former CIA operative and a well-known political commentator in the US known for his alarmist take on Iran's engagements in the Middle East, offered up a different take on events here and enunciated a bleak view of the underlying motivations for the government's 'managing' of the unrest as well as of the probable outcome (both domestically and internationally) of an increase in violence. 

Similarly, in an article for The Independent, Robert Fisk maintained that Syria is "a hard, tough country" and that the people here "do not obey the rules" and "follow the other Arabs like sheep" - and noted that Daraa has always been home to the "rebellious". Regarding the unrest here, Fisk employed lines of reasoning similar in part to both Baer and Achy (i.e. religion and economics, respectively) to put forth his interpretation of events here yet he also highlighted the fact that in his view, Syria has always been a "unitary" nation - and one that is of essential importance to the diplomatic maneuverings of the west. The article makes for an interesting read. 

Meanwhile, Foreign Policy published an article "The Syrian Time Bomb" by Patrick Seale that argues that events in Syria could spell the country's implosion - as well as that of the entire region. 

The US government continues to seem unsure of how to respond to or interpret events in Syria. Obama's new policy of increased engagement with Damascus has yet to bear results - and many view his administration's recent foreign policy as plagued with hypocrisy. Relatedly, in one of the week's more diplomatically comical events, the White House announced that the US will seek a second term on the UN's Human Right's Council - an effort to stifle Damascus' plans to continue bidding for the same seat. 

Now, for the remainder of the weekly international news roundup.

Politics & Diplomacy

On Wednesday March 30, reports emerged that Hamas was kicked out of Syria, however all such claims are heavily disputed by Ezzat al-Rashq, a member of the group's political bureau. 

The President received a number of calls and letters throughout the week from those expressing their strong political support for him and the government - among them, the Emir of Qatar, the Omar Hasan al-Bashir, the President of Sudan and President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Local press also reported that Syrian communities abroad, including those in Venezuela, Romania and Argentina, rallied on Monday in support of the government. 

Today April 6, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arrived in Damascus to meet with the President and the Foreign Minister to discuss event in Syria as well as the region at large. 

Energy & Water

Syria is set to receive 30m Kuwaiti dinars (108m USD) and 375m Saudi riyals (100m USD) from the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, to help finance a power project in the country's eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. The loan will be formally signed during meetings running April 6 through 7 in Damascus. During the meetings, officials will also discuss the possibility of financing a project in Hassakeh that will redirect water from the Tigris River.

On Monday, the 4th Syrian International Power and Electricity Exhibition (SYRPOWER 2011) started in Damascus. Participants include a number of foreign companies working in the Syrian energy sector. One of the event's key aims is the exchange of new ideas between Syrian and international power companies.

Economic Development & Trade

On Sunday April 3, there was a joint Syrian-Iranian workshop in Damascus to discuss opportunities for collaboration between the two countries on the manufacturing of nanotechnologies. Of particular relevance to both sides, is the practical application of such technologies towards efforts to solve issues of water shortages and drought. 

The same day, Deputy Telecommunications Minister Mohammad al-Jalali announced that Qatar Telecom QSC and Saudi Telecom Co. (STC) were still in the running for the third mobile license here in Syria. For more information, see this link

The 7th International Dentistry Forum started on Tuesday April 5 in Aleppo. The forum aims to bring together regional scientists and professionals to discuss advances in techniques, research and technology. 

Written by: Evelyn Aissa
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