December 15, 2011 - Syria News Blog: A Roundup of Key International Reportage & Commentary

In the News | 15-12-2011

Ninth Month of Syrian Revolution Ends, UN Raises Death Toll to Over 5,000

Today marks the end of the Syrian revolution's ninth month and nonviolent civil disobedience and activism among members of the opposition continue to rise, irregardless of the Syrian government's intensifying use of lethal force against its detractors. At the same time, the ranks of the Free Syrian Army, the armed element of the uprising, are slowly swelling, fueling concerns that the power of violence will soon overwhelm that of peaceful resistance. For their part, major players in the international community, Turkey, France, and the US among them, appear to be edging toward recanting their noninterventionist views on Syria's crisis, thereby ratcheting up fears that foreign military intervention in Syria is indeed on the table. 

The Syrian Revolution
 
On Friday, December 9, Syrian activists reported that an estimated 30 people were killed in crackdowns and clashes in a number of locations across the country. In Homs, the Local Coordination Committees reported that 15 people were killed when security forces allegedly opened fire on an anti-government protests.
 
Deaths on Friday were also reported in Hama, Daraa, Idlib, and the major Damascus suburbs of Douma and Saqba. Six children and four defectors from the army were among those killed. 
 
On Sunday, 12 civilians were reportedly killed by security forces, including two children and three adults in Homs. Another 46 people were allegedly injured during related violence in the city. 
 
Deaths were also reported in Kfar Takharim in Idlib province, where according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, clashes reportedly occurred between the military and its defectors. Two armored military vehicles were set ablaze in the area, while three other military vehicles were reportedly burned during similar clashes in the southern village of Busra al-Harir
 
Two teenage boys, ages 14 and 16, were also shot and killed by security forces in the southern province of Daraa on Sunday. The death toll among Syria's children has surged over the course of the last 30 days, with child fatalities reportedly almost daily. 
 
Syrian activists implemented what they hoped would be a country-wide general strike on Sunday, terming the "Day of Dignity" in an effort to intensify pressure against the government. The strike was most effectively observed in Homs and Daraa, while some "90 percent" of the shops in Douma were reportedly closed, according to the Observatory. According to activists, the aim is to carry out the strike until security and military forces withdraw from the cities and political detainees, who are thought to number in the tens of thousands, are released. The strike continues in numerous locations around the country.
 
While violent aspects of the revolution have quite clearly increased in recent weeks, so too has nonviolent civil disobedience. The upsurge in the latter reflects continued and intensified efforts among protestors to maintain the peaceful nature of the majority of the opposition.    
 
To that end in an interview on Sunday with Der Spiegel, head of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun, reiterated the SNC's ambition to keep government institutions intact throughout the duration of the unrest and during the transition period that might follow. At the same time, Ghalioun announced that the SNC was willing to "speak to civil and military authorities who do not represent the regime but institutions". He continued, "We do not wish to repeat the mistakes made in Iraq, we want public institutions, including law and order organs and social peace, to be preserved."
 
On Monday, new clashes reportedly erupted in Idlib while those that began the day before in Daraa continued. State media reported that three security force members were killed in Daraa during a battle with a "terrorist gang". A total of ten people were reportedly killed in violence that day.
 
The government proceeded with municipal elections, held every four years, on Monday. The turnout was unsurprisingly low. Some areas of the country, Homs in particular, are more or less paralyzed by violence, the threat of it, and the strike. The opposition boycotted the elections, terming them a sham, while the government hailed them as a sign of its efforts to continue moving forward with reform.
 
The following day according to the LCC, an estimated 32 people were killed in violence in a number of locations across the country, among them seven members of the security forces. Nineteen people were killed along the Turkish border in Idlib province. According to activists, 9 of the 19 civilians were killed when they came under fire after attempting to prevent a security convoy from passing by lighting tires on fire in the road. 
 
On Wednesday according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, members of the Free Syrian Army ambushed Syrian armed forces outside the city of Hama, killing eight. According to the Observatory, the attack came in response to the killing of five civilians earlier in the day who were reportedly shot whilst traveling in a vehicle not far from Khattab, a village in Homs countryside. No information has been provided as to why the car came under attack. Clashes were also reported in Lujat in Daraa province Wednesday, with three members of the Free Syrian Army reportedly injured. 
 
International Rights Groups
 
New Human Rights Watch report implicates Syrian officials in crimes against humanity 
Today December 15, Human Rights Watch released a new report, "'By All Means Necessary!' Individual and Command Responsibility for Crimes against Humanity in Syria," that implicates Syrian military commanders and high-level officials in committing crimes against humanity. 
 
The report is based 63 interviews with defected members of Syria's intelligence and military agencies. Some excerpts:
 
"…defectors shared with Human Rights Watch detailed information about their units’ participation in violations and the orders they received from commanders at different levels. The defectors provided information on violations that occurred in seven of Syria’s fourteen governorates: Damascus, Daraa, Homs, Idlib, Tartous, Deir al-Zor, and Hama."
  
"The statements of soldiers and officers who defected from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies leave no doubt that the abuses were committed in pursuance of state policy and that they were directly ordered, authorized, or condoned at the highest levels of Syrian military and civilian leadership. Human Rights Watch’s findings show that military commanders and officials in the intelligence agencies gave both direct and standing orders to use lethal force against the protesters…as well as to unlawfully arrest, beat, and torture the detainees." 
 
"…senior military commanders and high-ranking officials, including President Bashar al-Assad and the heads of the intelligence agencies, bear command responsibility for violations committed by their subordinates to the extent that they knew or should have known of the abuses but failed to take action to stop them."  
 
"Syrian authorities repeatedly claimed that the violence in the country has been perpetrated by armed terrorist gangs, incited and sponsored from abroad. Human Rights Watch has documented several incidents in which demonstrators and armed neighborhood groups have resorted to violence. Since September, armed attacks on security forces have significantly increased, with the Free Syrian Army, a self-declared opposition armed group with some senior members in Turkey, taking responsibility for many of them…" 
 
"However, despite the increased number of attacks by defectors and neighborhood defense groups, witness statements and corroborating information indicate that the majority of protests that Human Rights Watch has been able to document since the uprising began in March have been largely peaceful." 
 
"Considering the evidence that crimes against humanity have been committed in Syria, the pervasive climate of impunity for security forces and pro-government militias, and the grave nature of many of their abuses, Human Rights Watch believes that the United Nations Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC)." 
 
To read the report in full, click here.
 
International Politics & Diplomacy 
 
Austria - "There can be no impunity" for President Assad 
On Friday, December 9. Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger met with the head of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, who had travelled to Vienna to up support for the 260-member SNC council. 
 
Following the meeting, Spindelegger told the press that Austria's membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council means that it has a responsibility to help bring to light the "atrocities of the [Syrian] regime," and to make certain that its actions are formally judged at the international level. 
 
"There can be no impunity. Assad will have to answer for his offenses," Spindelegger said. "President Assad's latest comments show once again that he is either a cold-blooded cynic or that he lives in an absurd fantasy world," he continued.
 
Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu on Syria - Ankara does "not have the luxury of standing by and looking on"
On Friday, December 9 in a statement to reporters in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said of his country's view of the crisis in Syria, "Turkey has no desire to interfere in anyone's internal affairs. But if a risk to regional security arises, then we do not have the luxury of standing by and looking on."
 
"If a government that is fighting its own people and creating refugees, is putting not only their own security at risk but also that of Turkey, then we have a responsibility and the authority to say to them: 'Enough!'" he continued.
 
Davutoglu's remarks are the most recent in a string of comments by foreign officials hinting at increasing readiness to intervene in Syria's deepening crisis. 
 
Syria fingered for attack on French UN peacekeepers in Lebanon 
On Friday, December 9, five French UN peacekeepers were killed in a bombing in southern Lebanon. Two days later, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe accused Damascus of being behind the bombing, though he conceded that he had no evidence that linked Syria to the attack.
 
"We have strong reasons to think that this attack came from there [Syria],"Juppe said to TV5 Monde television channel and Le Monde newspaper. "I don't have proof," he said, however. 
 
The same day, former Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, tweeted similar accusations, stating that the attack was "Another message from Bashar."
 
Analysts and officials speculate that Damascus launched the attack perhaps through its ally Hezbollah, a powerful force in southern Lebanon, in an effort to draw attention aware from its domestic crisis by destabilizing Lebanon. Were Hezbollah not involved, and indeed the group denies such accusations, Damascus has countless allies in the region historically used for similar purposes. 
 
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi responded to the accusations on Monday, however, saying that "Syria denies that Syria had anything to do with this reprehensible act". 
 
Syrian embassy in Jordan attacked
On Sunday, December 11, a group of Syrians numbering around 12, attacked the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan. Two diplomats as well as four consulate employees were reportedly injured during the attack. According to a statement released by the embassy, the group entered the embassy under the guise of needing to complete paperwork and proceeded to attack the consul, another diplomat, several staffers, and a security guard. Nine of the attackers were reportedly arrested. 
 
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak: "downfall of Assad would be a blessing"
On Sunday, December 11, during an event in Vienna, Austria, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak was quoted by Austrian press as saying that, "A downfall of Assad would be a blessing for the Middle East." 
 
According to a statement by his ministry, he also stated that "We have been witness in the past few days to battles between those loyal to the Assad family and rebel forces. This is the continuation of the decline of the Assad family which will lead in the end to the end of its rule. We cannot tell what will happen...In any event it will be a blow to the Iran-Hezbollah axis."
 
UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay - 5,000 killed in Syria violence
On Monday, December 12, UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, announced during an afternoon briefing that more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since the revolution began on March 15
 
Pillay asserted that the death toll has surged in recent weeks, with over 300 children also counted among the dead. Thousands more are currently being detained, the right chief noted. Just a few months back during Pillay's last UN Security Council briefing in August, the death toll stood at 2,000. 
 
Pillay urged the UNSC to refer the Syria case to the International Criminal Court for the purpose of investigating possible crimes against humanity. 
 
In response to Pillay's briefing, US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said that Pillay's report "underscores the urgency of the present moment". She continued, "Through condemnations issued by the UN general assembly and human rights council and bold steps taken by the Arab League and the government of Turkey, international bodies are starting to match their severe disapproval of Syria's bloody crackdown with concrete steps to bring it to an end. It is past time for the UN security council to do the same."
 
Syrian media responded to Pillay's report with fury on Tuesday, terming it and related calls to send the Syria case to the ICC, a "conspiracy". 
 
Syria accused of training Bahraini opposition
On December 13 during an interview with The Telegraph, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa accused Damascus of training members of Bahrain's opposition. 
 
 
At present, no further details concerning the evidence have been released. 
 
Ban Ki-moon - “In the name of humanity, it is time for the international community to act”
On Wednesday, December 14, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, called on world leaders to act “in the name of humanity” against the Syrian government's crackdown against the country's revolutionaries. 
 
In a statement to reporters in New York, Ki-moon said that the use of violence against civilians and the disruption of basic human services “cannot go on”. He continued,  “In the name of humanity, it is time for the international community to act.”
 
US State Department - Syrian "regime is the equivalent of dead men walking"
During testimony before the US House of Representatives' foreign affairs subcommittee on Wednesday, December 14, State Department special coordinator on Middle East affairs Frederic Hof told lawmakers that it was clear that the current Syrian government would not survive the tumult that has spread across the country since March. 
 
 
Hof's testimony, "Confronting Damascus: US Policy toward the Evolving Situation in Syria," charged that, “The international community’s duty to the Syrian people transcends power politics." 
 
“We ask that Russia, China, India and others address some basic questions: Does the regime permit peaceful protest? Does the regime allow the political opposition to organize, discuss and deliberate without fear of assassination or arrest,” Hof asked.
 
“If the regime succeeds in its bloody-minded effort to save itself at Syria’s expense, everyone will lose. So we ask those states that have opposed UN efforts to protect Syrian civilians to reconsider,” he continued.
 
The video and transcript of Hof's testimony are not yet available. 
 
Further Reading
 
Clips on minority peacemakers, the use of torture, and broader revolution dynamics:
"In Syria, Expelling the Peacemakers" - New York Times - Stephanie Saldana covers the Syrian government's recent decision to expel Father Dall'Oglio, founder of the famous community of Deir Mar Musa, from Syria. Saldana writes of  Dall'Oglio: "Father Dall’Oglio founded the community… in 1982, at the height of the Lebanese Civil War. He had hiked out into the desert in search of a ruined Byzantine monastery. After spending 10 days praying in the rubble, he was inspired to rebuild the monastery and to found a community of monks and nuns dedicated to prayer, silence and hospitality. The Syrian monastery, situated between Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the West Bank, would symbolize peace." 
 
Until October, Dall’Oglio had refused to take sides in response to the Syrian revolution but as the situation deteriorated, he told the Catholic newspaper La Croix that much of Syria could no longer live under dictatorship any longer. His expulsion from the country deals a highly symbolic and devastating blow to those who are pushing for peace. 
 
Saldana writes: "Nonviolent resistance is a theater made possible by spectators who give meaning to the sacrifices made, who form a collective conscience that in time can challenge the will of those who oppress. In the absence of a free media, in a country now largely off limits to foreign journalists, anyone in Syria who dares to stand up and risk his life must wonder if anyone is watching."
 
"Syria's Torture Machine" - The Guardian - Jonathan Miller's extensive reportage on the use of "industrial scale" torture against civilians in detention. A salient, horrifying read. 
 
"Syria Comes of Age: An Extraordinary Population Boom Fuels the Revolt Against Bashar al-Assad's Regime" - Foreign Policy - David Kenner covers the implications of Syria's demographic boom, spanning the 1960s through the 1990s and averaging 44 births for every 1,000 people at its height. Syria has one of the youngest populations in the Middle East. Kenner notes that the centers of the country's highest population growth roughly overlap with the Syria's revolutionary flash points, where poverty and unemployment prevail. 
 
On international intervention:
"The Syrian Civil War" - Council on Foreign Relations - Eliott Abrams makes the case for American meddling in the Syrian revolution, asserting that, "we [the US] could get in directly, through covert support. There is certainly no moral argument against doing so, for we want this struggle over and Assad out as soon as possible, and want influence with those who will inherit power in Syria" - a sentiment increasingly shared by US policymakers. 
 
"Contingencies of Turkish Military Intervention into Syria" - Middle East Online - Idrees Mohammed presents a number of scenarios for Turkish military intervention in Syria, covering Turkish foreign policy and strategic interests. Relations with Iran and the Turkish bid for EU membership are also covered, as is the possibility of establishing a buffer zone inside Syria.
 
Clips on sanctions, depreciation of the Syrian pound:
"Syria Flight Ban: A Failed Formula?" - Al Akhbar - An excellent clip by Leah Caldwell covering the recent move by the Arab League to reduce their flights to and from Syria by 50 percent. Caldwell covers opposition among the League's members to the move, the manner in which such sanctions are often bypassed, and the outcome of longstanding US sanctions against Syria which rendered maintenance of its commercial airline, Syrian Air, incredibly arduous.
 
"Syria's Currency Sags Under Weight of Unrest" - Reuters - Suleiman al-Khalidi succinctly covers the depreciation of the Syrian pound, panicked efforts to convert the pound to foreign currencies, and collapsing confidence in the country's banking sector. 
 
Two new, anonymous, and well-written accounts of life and the revolution in Damascus at present - and one clip on civil disobedience in the capital:
 "Damascus on the Edge" - New York Times - AND - "Twilight in Damascus" - New York Review of Books. The former, in particular, is recommended. 
 
"A Colourful Uprising in Damascus" - Al Jazeera - Basma Atassi's illuminating account of the manner in which Syrian revolutionaries in Damascus are using civil disobedience to propel the revolution forward. The capital's young revolutionaries, many inspired by Gandhi and Gene Sharp (author of a number of key works on nonviolent resistance, including "The Anti-Coup"), adopt innovative techniques to display their opposition to the current government and the use of violence against civilians - including, dyeing the city's fountains red to symbolize the government's use of violence against fellow citizens, and hiding cassette players set to play anti-government protest songs in plastic bags in refuse bins. Atassi notes that while the surface of Damascus appears relatively unaffected by the revolution, the uprising is in full force beneath the surface. 
 
On imprisonment: 
"The Cell of Survival: Bara Sarraj" - Jadaliyya - The third part of Amal Hanano's series, "Portraits of People." In this article, Hanano writes of Bara Sarraj's imprisonment in Hama's Tadmor Prison for some twelve years, beginning in March 1984.
 
Articles covering the armed elements of the opposition:
"'Every Syrian Has Lost Someone. Now We Are Ready to Fight Back'" - The Independent - Justin Vela covers the slowly growing ranks of the Free Syrian Army, the issue of defending civilians from security crackdowns, and unconfirmed reports of the movement of weapons into Syria from neighboring Turkey.
 
"Inside Syria: The Rebel Call for Arms and Ammunition" - The Guardian - Initially, this clip by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reads like many others, dramatically capturing the militant components of the Syrian revolution. The second half of the article, however, covers the issue of army defections, including the dearth of them at high levels, as well as concerns among some of those who have taken up arms, or contemplated it, that the armed opposition might never wield enough force to pose a true threat to the Syrian military. 
 

References made to articles, individuals, organizations or government bodies in this blog do not necessarily reflect or imply an endorsement by The Syria Report. The Syria News Blog is a news service offered by The Syria Report only for the purpose of recapping foreign reportage on matters pertaining to Syria.

Written by: Evelyn Aissa
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