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Posts Tagged ‘damascus’

Watching the chaos in Syria, it is only natural that the international community might be feeling somewhat impotent right now. Despite growing international condemnation and ever more aggressive rhetoric, including from once strong ally Turkey, the killing in Syria continues as it has done for the past half year.

Even sanctions, one of the few weapons in the arsenal of diplomacy, may not prove as effective, or straightforward, as hoped. More specifically, the West will have to decide how far to take the sanctions and at what price to the population and to themselves.

As it stands, the most significant sanction has come at the hand of the European Union, which has banned the import of all Syrian crude oil, a policy that the EU wonks predict will hit the regime hard. Since 95 percent of oil exports head to Europe, this new sanction should deny the Syrian government a vital source of income.

But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. The oil export industry is relatively small in Syria and accounts for only 25 percent of the regime’s hard currency earnings. This is not Libya, where switching off the oil taps effectively brought the income to a halt.

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After several months confined to the city of Damascus I recently decided that it was time to travel to the northern commercial centre of Aleppo to see how the uprising had affected Syria’s second largest city. While the road and the towns along the way held plenty of evidence of the 5 months of protest and brutal crackdown, Aleppo, like much of Damascus, remains in comfortable denial of the thousands of deaths throughout the country.

Along with a partner in crime, I headed north from the Harasta bus terminal in an air-conditioned Pullman coach. The bus quickly escaped the polluted suburbs of Damascus and after being waved through a makeshift military checkpoint we were out on the open road, surrounded by rocky desert and scraggly bushes.

After a couple of hours we knew that we were approaching Homs by the increasing number of military trucks on the road.

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Eid at the BBC

The BBC recently asked me to give a brief description of how people were celebrating Eid in Damascus. They used some of my comments, as well as the image of Naufara Cafe, as part of a piece focusing on Eid during the Arab Spring. I didn’t choose the pseudonym Faisal!

My article on Flash-mobs in Damascus was also featured on Syria Comment.

 

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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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The shabeehah were out in force last night, hundreds of young men armed with sticks and batons, sitting outside the main mosques of Meedan and Kafr Souseh, waiting for protests to emerge. Large green public buses ferried them into the centre so that they could stand around, intimidate and make the odd arbitrary ‘arrest’. A young guy in a cream coloured shirt lead in handcuffs towards a minivan, the curtains pulled shut.

Qaboun, north east of the Old City, has experienced growing demonstrations over the past two weeks. Last night however, it was completely deserted. The only proof of the neighbourhood’s dissent is the opposition graffiti on the walls which has since been blacked out by loyalists, leaving ugly dark patches on the white walls. Pro-regime slogans have been scribbled next to them in denial of the area’s growing frustration and anger.

Further east, Harasta was in complete darkness. The region is regularly denied electricity by the regime to thwart opposition attempts to organise and mobilise. Residential buildings shrouded in a gloomy dark loomed above the beams of car headlights below. “It’s as if there’s a war”, said our taxi driver. Despite the blackout, a few shops were still open, lit by torches and candles. A glowing furnace provided the only light in a pizza shop.

The deliberate power outages will have been particularly annoying as residents of Harasta hoped to spend their Ramadan evenings watching the season’s best television series and staying up all night eating and socialising. People did their best to enjoy their Friday evenings, gathering outside on plastic chairs or congregating in front of the few shops with a generator. But still, the area was eerily quiet.

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As protests grow in size and frequency across the country, Syrians are beginning to ask, what’s next? There is little reason to believe that the government will back down any time soon, despite increasing condemnation from the international community. And given Assad’s track record of offering reforms while continuing to kill and imprison demonstrators, the opposition is unlikely to be happy until they see the regime overthrown.

There are therefore two potential ways for the Syrian uprising to evolve. The first involves economic pressure on the regime, which will most likely involve Turkish sanctions, a worsening economy and the eventual shifting of allegiance of the traditional merchant classes in Damascus and Aleppo. Without this crucial support base, Assad would not be able to hold out indefinitely.

Alternatively, the Syrian unrest, which is currently an uprising hoping to become a revolution, could see rising levels of violence, resulting in a civil war. Unfortunately, journalists and long-time Syria observers whom I have spoken to here are increasingly predicting the eventual emergence of civil war. Such a conflict could follow similar patterns to Libya, where the country is eventually split in two along political grounds. Or it could be a far more complicated environment, with conflict driven by religious, ethnic and even regional geopolitical factors.

The unrest is still several stages from all-out war. Various political and military conditions will have to be met. One of the most crucial factors will be the state of the Syrian armed forces and the regime’s ability to maintain loyalty.

Splits within the army are already starting to emerge. There are increasing signs of fragmentation within the largely Sunni rank and file. Video testimonials from defected soldiers float are plentiful and there are reports of gun battles between loyal and defected soldiers. Last week the Syrian Free Army announced their formation, although little has been heard from the group so far, and doubts have been raised as to whether the men in the video are even real officers.

But a civil war will require far more than isolated cases of disobedience and defection. As we have seen in Libya, one of the greatest challenge faced by any rebel army is a shortage of weapons and ammunition. Even in Libya, where entire brigades, along with all their resources and firepower, joined the opposition, the rebels quickly used up their available ammunition and struggled to put a weapon in the hands of each infantryman..

From the very beginning of the uprising, there were reports of weapons being smuggled in via Syria’s two war-stricken neighbours, Lebanon and Iraq. Initially many of these reports may have been fabricated by the regime to encourage the idea that the unrest was caused by armed militants. But articles by the NPR and the Daily Star provide good reason to believe that light arms are indeed being transported across the Iraqi and Lebanese borders.

The Economist provides a similar report:

Some protesters say they should resort to violence. In towns such as Tel Kalakh, Jisr al-Shughour, Idleb and Deir ez-Zor, which are near the border, weapons are being smuggled in. But rifles and Molotov cocktails are no match for tanks and artillery. Other protesters hope that, if the regime becomes even more brutal, chunks of the army may defect, as they did in Libya.

The need for weapons may have also inspired the attack on a Homs army college in late July.

After weapons, any would-be rebel army will need some form of safe zone, a haven in which to organise and train, akin to eastern Libya where the rebels have effectively founded a parallel state. When the Syrian army launched its assault on Jisr al-Shughour there was talk of Turkey moving in to Syrian territory to set up a buffer zone in order to protect the thousands of refugees massing on the border. Such a zone could function as friendly territory for civilian opposition groups and defected soldiers.

Alternatively, were the army to lose both Homs and Hama to the opposition, they would also lose control of the Aleppo-Damascus highway. This would severely limit the regime’s ability to move troops between the two largest cities and create a zone in the centre of the country outside of government control.

While the threat of civil war becomes more likely with each passing week, the possibility of a more drawn out conclusion, driven by internal economics and international pressure, is also emerging. With its past experiences in the region, the US is very wary of another failed Muslim state. As such it is quietly pursuing a gentler resolution to the crisis, founded on sanctions and diplomatic pressure, most importantly from Syria’s Muslim and Arab neighbours. So far it has also shied away from explicitly demanding that Assad step down. Without an organised opposition, Syria would experience a devastating power vacuum were Assad to relinquish control. Most importantly the West should not be under any illusions that the unrest can be resolved quickly or easily. Assad is not going anywhere anytime soon.

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