Archive for August, 2011

Kafar Souseh

I updated the post ‘Last Friday of Ramadan’ to include the ugly events early on Saturday morning in Kafar Souseh, a suburb just south of central Damascus. You can read the new article at MidEastPosts.


And Eid Mubarak! inshallah kul 3am wa antum bikhayr


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Last Friday of Ramadan

I wrote this on Friday but haven’t been able to upload it until now because the incredibly unreliable internet connection.

The last Friday of Ramadan held a lot of expectation for the opposition activists in Damascus. While protests have certainly picked up pace over the last month they still haven’t managed to unsettle the capital, the bastion of pro-regime support. So the opposition hoped that today would see a suitably dramatic finale to the holy month. But during a tour of the capital after the midday prayers, it was clear that few protests had managed to gain enough momentum to beat the overwhelming security presence.

In hot spots like Midan and Kafr Souseh, hundreds of shabeehah, the regime’s thugs, stand guard along with regular police officers and soldiers. Mukhabarat agents, the secret police, keep a watchful eye over everything, loitering in leather jackets next to their cars, occasionally barking orders into walkie-talkies. The shabeehah are better armed than on previous Fridays. Along with the usual batons and sticks many are also equipped with assault rifles and shotguns. A few carry riot gear. Pick-up trucks laden with paramilitary soldiers prowl the main streets of Midan.

But there is little sign of the opposition. Groups of 3 or 4, young men often dressed in white jalabiyahs, hang around leaning on cars, waiting for something to kick off but sufficient numbers never appear. Without a large group of protestors they wouldn’t stand a chance against the shabeehah. The few brave enough to start chanting are quickly beaten up and dragged off. An old bus parked beneath an underpass, its windows sealed with metal bars, acts as a holding cell for those unlucky enough to be arrested. (more…)

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Today’s Reading

The one lesson that Syrians must learn from Libya is this: set up a truly representative national council.

A national council including credible dissidents would convince many Syrians who currently sit on the fence to side with the protesters. By discussing post-Assad Syria, a council could also encourage the international community to move more aggressively against the regime. Military intervention is both unlikely and undesirable, but there is more to be done with smart sanctions and pressure.

In fairness, the opposition has little political or diplomatic experience, after decades of suppression. But although delay means more bloodshed, opposition figures are still disagreeing on lesser issues than the continuing killings. Some even pulled out of talks about starting a national council. If such discord continues, some in the opposition will bear some of the blame for a lack of success.

According to U.S. officials, as of April Iran was providing the Syrian security services with weapons, surveillance equipment, and training. Earlier this month, Ankara intercepted an arms shipment headed from Tehran to Damascus — the second such shipment it caught this summer.

The Iranian regime has also provided Assad with technology to monitor e-mail, cell phones, and social media. Iran developed these capabilities in the wake of the 2009 protests and spent millions of dollars establishing a “cyber army” to track down dissidents online. Iran’s monitoring technology is believed to be among the most sophisticated in the world — second, perhaps, only to China. Shortly after Iran shared its know-how with Syria this summer, Assad lifted restrictions on social networking Web sties, presumably to lure dissents out into the open.

In addition to sharing weapons and surveillance tools credible reports from Syrian refugees indicate that Tehran sent its own forces to Syria to quash the protests. A number of revolutionary guards from the elite Quds Force are also reported to be there, presumably to train Syrian forces. On May 18, the U.S. Treasury Department mentioned the role of the Quds Force directly, asserting that Mohsen Chizari, the Quds Force’s third-in-command, was training the security services to fight against the protestors.

Even if Assad should eventually fall, Iran will not stand idly by; Tehran will surely try to influence any successive government.

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There have been numerous comparisons made between the now successful Libyan revolution and the ongoing Syrian uprising, even though the two scenarios are wildly different. The Syrian opposition cannot look to Libya for tips in how to topple a dictator. Mass defections in the military and NATO intervention can’t be expected in Syria.

But Syrians will be looking back at the early stages of the Libyan campaign, in particular at that crucial moment when the until-then peaceful protest movement took up arms and turned itself into a violent rebellion. With hindsight, that decision seems to have paid off. After only 6 months, the rag-tag rebels have put an end to over 4 decades of brutal and mindless repression. It is also possible that the opposition had little choice but to arm itself. When an already violent and unpredictable despot promises to hunt you down like “cockroaches”, grabbing your gun seems like a logical course of action.

But in doing so the opposition also alienated large parts of the Libyan population that would have otherwise been willing to join the cause. It’s a lot easier to take part in non-violent street protests than it is to reconcile with the possibility of killing someone.

We should also remember that the Libyan uprising enjoyed several successes before it took up arms. Massive, unarmed protests shut down most of the country and encouraged the defection of several high ranking military and political figures. Incredibly, they even took the city of Benghazi with little blood spilt.

If the early Libyan opposition campaign had any weakness it wasn’t that it was unarmed but that it focused too much on a single tactic – protests. When movements rely exclusively on protests they become extremely vulnerable to the state security apparatus. An opposition campaign should instead combine protests with strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and go-slows. Even the most well organised security services can’t handle such widespread civil disobedience and the effect on the national economy will eventually drain the regime’s available resources. (more…)

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A different set of colours has been hoisted above the Libyan embassy in Damascus. The Libyan ambassador and diplomatic staff in Damascus announced on Sunday that they had changed loyalties and were now supporting the opposition National Transitional Council and so the red, green and black of the old Kingdom of Libya flag is now flying proudly over the diplomatic mission in Roudah. The propagandist pictures of Libyan children killed by NATO air strikes have also been ripped off from the display boards.

The development actually made the front page of al-Watan, one of the largest state owned Syrian newspapers, alongside a picture of a burning poster of Muammar Gaddafi. Unsurprisingly, the regime controlled media has jumped on the ‘people power’ bandwagon, recently championing the cause of the plucky rebels in the face of a demented and ruthless dictator. One headline relished in the fact that “The rebels are searching for him [Gaddafi], alley by alley… house by house”, a jibe at one of the Colonel’s rants early in the revolution.

The Syrian propaganda machine took a similar stance after the Egyptian revolution, suggesting that Arab leaders must listen to their people. Of course Syria would never have to worry about disgruntled citizens; Mr President Bashar al-Assad understands the wishes and desires of the Syrian people.

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As Libya’s merry band of rebels rushed into the streets of Tripoli, sending the Colonel scurrying off into hiding, many were wondering how the events were being viewed from Damascus. Was Mr Assad glued to al-Jazeera like the rest of us, nervously fidgeting as yet another Arab dictator faced an inglorious ousting from office? Libya is a long way away from Syria and the uprising here is a far more complex affair than the civil war in the deserts of North Africa; but I would guess that Assad and his regime goons would have been quietly drawing parallels. Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gadhafi; will the young Syrian dictator soon be joining that list?

If President Assad had experienced any anxiety it wasn’t on show Sunday night when he gave an interview to two reverent state television employees. Mr Assad most likely lives in the same ‘sea of quietness’ in which the Egyptian writer Mohamed Heikel believes all nut-job dictators reside and in the interview he reassured his subjects that “things are better now. I am not worried”.

True to form, Bashar rambled on about foreign meddling and armed terrorist groups in his country, whilst dismissing the international community’s calls for him to step down. “This cannot be said to a president who was elected by the people”, referring to the occasional elections where he is the only candidate.

If Assad continues to sound defiant in the face of the Libyan example, as well as growing international condemnation, perhaps he is justified. Although Obama has recently called on Assad to “step aside”, the American president as well as various other honourable heads of state asked the same of Gaddafi 6 months ago and he has only just been shaken from his little dream world in Tripoli. Furthermore, that came on the back of a NATO air campaign, something that has been ruled out unequivocally for Syria.

It would seem that Assad is even mocking the growing concerns of human rights abuses in Syria. No sooner has Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, demanded an end to “all military operations and mass arrests” than Assad tells him that “military and police action” has stopped. Meanwhile, in the real world, more Syrians are killed and arrested.

The Syrian opposition may have been encouraged by this weekend’s events – witnessing the humiliating downfall of a mad despot is always satisfying – but they certainly shouldn’t get ahead of themselves. Assad won’t be buying a plane ticket to Saudi Arabia just yet.

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While  the wave of anti-regime protests spreads across much of Syria, central Damascus remained quiet and under government control. This is life inside the Damascus Bubble.

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