March 29, 2011 - Syria in the News: A Roundup of International Reportage

In the News | 30-03-2011


The past week marked a critical turning point for Syria – a reality lost on neither Syrians nor the international community. Turbulence in the country was again among the primary foci of international news and analysis. 

Below, is a synthesis of events and corresponding international media reportage. For a complete timeline of the unrest here, follow  this link .
Early in the morning on Wednesday the 23rd, reports emerged of serious violence at Daraa’s historic Omari mosque. International media maintained that the city’s protestors had sought refuge in the mosque to treat civilians injured in earlier protests, when local security forces stormed the building, opening fire on the people inside, killing six – including a doctor and a nurse. Local media report a different story, stating that armed gangs attacked an ambulance parked in front of the mosque thus prompting security forces to intervene. According to media here, four people died in the resulting violence. Wednesday afternoon likely marked the peak of the recent violence here in Syria, when thousands of members of the communities surrounding Daraa (including Inkhil, Khirbat al-Ghazalah, Harrah and Jasim) marched to the besieged city in a show of support for its citizens, only to be fired on by security forces. Reports of the total number of deaths during the day's protests ranged enormously – from 37 to upwards of 100 – and prompted a number human rights and international organizations to speak out against the violence, including Amnesty International.
Daraa remained in the throes of unrest on Thursday when more than 20,000 people marched in funerals held for victims of the previous day’s protests. Reports indicate that the military’s presence in and around the city was strong and the White House issued a statement condemning the violence here. At the same time, President Bashar al-Assad’s media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban announced a number of reforms, most significant among them – the President’s willingness to consider lifting the 1963 emergency law. Shaaban also stated that “there were some mistakes” in dealing with the unrest in Daraa. Importantly, there were no additional reports of significant violence in Daraa or elsewhere in Syria that day.
Friday was termed the ‘Friday of Dignity’ by protestors and organized rallies surfaced in a host of cities across the country, including Damascus, Homs, Lattakia and Aleppo. In Sanamein, a city close to Daraa, reports emerged of serious violence resulting in the deaths of between 10 and 20. While foreign media report that those killed were protestors, local media states that the dead were members of an armed gang who waged an attack on a nearby army base. At the same time, thousands of government supporters took to the streets throughout Damascus, on foot and in cars, in a show of support for the President. Interestingly, hundreds of people formed a rally in front of Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Syria to protest against the agency’s coverage of the unrest here. They argued that the network’s coverage of the situation overlooked the reality of widespread support for the President. Meanwhile, unrest in Lattakia took a disturbing turn as reports emerged of a number of deaths of protestors in the city. In Daraa, protestors attempting to destroy a statue of former President Hafez al-Assad were also on the receiving end of live fire – thus leading to further deaths. Importantly, however, protestors outside of Daraa never exceeded the hundreds anywhere and local media declared that the events were indeed gatherings to advocate for the speedy implementation of reforms as well as a reduction in local corruption.   
On Saturday, protests carried on in several cities around the country and troubling reports emerged indicating that there were a  large number of deaths during the day’s protests in Lattakia. Among the fatalities, were members of the local police force. Authorities asserted that armed gangs were responsible for unrest in the city while members of the international media – which is almost entirely banned here – struggled to obtain further information to shed light on the situation. Some reported that by the 26th, the death toll from the unrest here had reached 126. However, there was and remains no consensus on the number of fatalities incurred during any of the protests in Syria. The government also announced the release of approximately 260 political prisoners – a move interpreted as an effort to appease local protestors. In response to the violence, the UN human rights chief made a statement warning Syrian authorities that repression of protestors would likely result in further violence. 
Sunday March 27 marked a shift in the focal point of the protests from Daraa, where protestors held a sit-in in Omari mosque, to Lattakia where the government deployed military forces in an effort to control violence and unrest. International and local media reports offered widely divergent reports regarding who was responsible for the mayhem in Lattakia. Thus, while some foreign media (namely Al Jazeera), claimed that the violence was largely the result of government actions to suppress the protest movement, local media maintained that violence had its origin in the destructive activities of foreign elements and criminal gangs. Locals also received text messages from the Interior Ministry thanking them for their support of the government while also encouraging them to stay home Sunday night as pro-reform protestors were allegedly planning a rally in Damascus. Though more security checkpoints were imposed in Daraa, other cities in Syria showed few signs of unrest and in an interview with Al Jazeera, Shaaban stated that the emergency law, which has been in place in Syria since 1963, would be lifted.  Further, parliament member Mohammed Habash noted the possibility of further government concessions. However, amid all such discussion of reform, the government nevertheless expelled Reuter’s Damascus-based correspondent, Khaled Yacoub Oweis, on the grounds of “unprofessional and false” reporting. At the same time, President Assad received phone calls on Sunday from the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Issa al- Khalifa, Iraqi President Jalal al-Talabani, and the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who each expressed their strong support for Syria during the current tumultuous times. 
On Monday, protestors returned to the streets of Daraa but were quickly dispersed by security forces. International media also reported that snipers could be seen from the city’s rooftops. Lebanese reporters apparently detained over the weekend were also released while local and international media reported that Lattakia remained plagued with violence. Further, London-based Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to hold those responsible for any unlawful shooting to account while Amnesty International issued an appeal to the government to officially lift the 1963 emergency law. However, throughout the unrest here, those assigned the blame for the violence differ according to source. 
On Tuesday, powerful scenes emerged from Damascus as what appeared to be nearly a million Syrians took to the streets at the start of the day to show their support for President Assad. While the international media collectively interpreted the event as a sign of the government’s coercive powers, the sheer numbers of people – and the volume of their chants in support of the government – suggest that interests and allegiances here are complicated and less understood by the international community than foreign media suggests. 
In critically important news, Al Jazeera reported on Tuesday morning that a high-ranking Syrian official informed the network that the President accepted the resignation of the cabinet and would make an address to the nation within 48 hours to detail his plan for reform. Expectations here are high as Syrians await his speech. 
Foreign governments have interpreted the events here through the lens of their respective strategic interests and for obvious reasons that has made resulting international reportage on the situation interesting to follow. For example, some centrists and conservatives in the US have channeled reports of violence here into their longstanding stance against the Syrian government and for hostile actions against this country. The Obama administration, however, has condemned the violence but also made it rather clear that it has no intention of responding with military action. Indeed, Obama has recently made some efforts to open up lines of communication between Damascus and Washington – particularly with his appointment of Ambassador Ford in January. Others in the US (as well as in the UK) argued that what matters is not violence in Syria, nor the outcome of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East but, the status of the Iran versus Saudi battle for regional influence. Turkish officials, on the other hand, have been working hard to strengthen their economic and political relations with Syria among much else, and thus have expressed their concern for the situation and support for serious reform, while stopping short of vitriol. Iran’s silence is almost deafening
While much of the past week's international commentary on the unrest here in Syria carried a strong tone of condemnation, one of the more inflammatory articles was a piece published in The Washington Post: "Ridding Syria of a Despot." Additional international media highlights not referenced to above include: New York Times –  "Syria Tries to Ease Deep Political Crisis"; The Economist – "Syria’s Unrest: A Bloody Mess"; Radio Free Europe  –  "Syria’s Assad, On the Ropes, Finds Friends in Strange Places";The Washington Institute for Near East Policy –  "It’s Time Bashar Followed Through on His Word," and; BBC –  "Syria Protests: How Secure is President Assad?
Now, for the remainder of the weekly international news roundup.
Politics & Diplomacy
On March 27, Syria agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to visit a nuclear site in the western city of Homs. The inspection is scheduled for April 1, however, the Al-Kibar facilities bombed by Israel in 2007 will not be visited. 
Syria is also still bidding for a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council. Though under heavy criticism for the recent violence here, the country’s ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari stated in an interview that Syria’s candidacy and the recent turmoil here, are “two different issues”. 
On March 29 Sytrol, Syria’s state-owned oil company, lowered its April Souedie crude export selling price by $1.35 a barrel. 
On March 25, Turkish security forces grounded another plane bound for Syria from Iran. Upon inspection, they discovered car parts and a box of automatic rifles. Two days later, Syrian security forces seized weapons, including explosives, hidden in a refrigerated truck entering Syria from Iraq. The driver was arrested. 
Economic Development & Trade
Last week, Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah al-Dardari met with senior Indonesian officials, including Vice President Boediono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, to discuss options for improving bilateral relations between the two countries. Among the options discussed was a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) that would enhance the role of the Syrian-Indonesian Business Council in building partnerships between companies in the two countries. Officials from both sides also agreed to work on joint poverty alleviation efforts as well as academic and research exchanges. 
On Sunday, the Ministry of Economy and Trade held a workshop, “Trade Negotiation Skills,” in conjunction with the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ). During the workshop, Syria’s Deputy Minister of Economy and Trade, Khaled Salouta, stated that Syria is currently working to modernize the country’s local regulations such that they will be in accordance with those of the WTO.  
Written by: Evelyn Aissa
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