Trying to drown Syria's revolution in blood
looks at the effort by Syria's rulers to butcher the growing rebellion.
THREATENED BY defections in the armed forces and the resilience of the revolutionary movement, the Syrian state is moving to crush the popular movement with mass slaughter, raising the specter of a civil war.
Following the script of Libya's ruler Muammar el-Qaddafi and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is using savage force, including tanks, helicopters and heavy weapons, to hammer the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour and drive much of its population across the border with Turkey, where an estimated 3,000 Syrians have taken refuge in camps as of June 12, and another 6,000 were waiting for access.
According to survivors and documented by video footage smuggled out of the country, Syrian armed forces shot dozens of unarmed people in Jisr al-Shughour as tanks laid siege to the town of 70,000 and shelled homes. Livestock were slaughtered, and crops were burned.
There was lightly armed resistance to the killings, bolstered by the defection of Syrian soldiers. After being told that they were being sent to fight "terrorists," the soldiers found themselves facing off against unarmed demonstrators. According to several media reports, some refused orders to fire on unarmed people, and their commanders ordered them to be shot.
Others soldiers have apparently managed to join the rebellion, turning their guns on the Syrian armed forces. The government claimed that 120 soldiers have been killed around the town of Jisr al-Shughour in recent days. This could be an inflated number, but some soldiers have certainly died, either because they disobeyed commands or they were killed by those who did, in fact, join the rebellion.
The resistance has taken on armed character in another town in the same northwestern region of Syria. According to a BBC report, armed men attacked the courthouse, police station and a key fuel depot in the town of Maarat al-Numan.
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IF THE popular movement is taking up weapons after weeks of nonviolent protests, it's because the regime has again and again used lethal force since the popular movement mushroomed across the country in March. Despite an estimated 1,200 deaths at the hands of security forces and the arrests of 10,000--many of whom have been subjected to torture--the movement has nevertheless continued to grow.
Indeed, the horrors inflicted by the regime have only radicalized the democracy movement. In the southern city of Daraa, where protests began three months ago following the police torture of youths for writing anti-regime graffiti, there was widespread fury over the death last month of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib while he was in police custody. The boy's family defied threats from police to keep quiet and allowed reporters to see his Hamza's mutilated body. Al Jazeera reported:
Hamza's eyes were swollen and black, and there were identical bullet wounds where he had apparently been shot through both arms, the bullets tearing a hole in his sides and lodging in his belly. On Hamza's chest was a deep, dark burn mark. His neck was broken, and his penis cut off.
A few days later, authorities released the mutilated body of Hamza's friend, 15-year-old Thamer al-Sahri. The two had been arrested together while attending a protest six weeks earlier.
Activists responded to the torture and murder of Hamza by giving the weekly Friday protest on June 3 a theme of marching for children--despite the likelihood of an even greater crackdown from the government. But as the Associated Press reported, instead of the "familiar cycle of protest and government crackdown," during the June 3 demonstrations in Jisr al-Shughour and elsewhere, "police and soldiers turned on their commanders, and control of the town slipped out of government hands."
Al Jazeera reporters pieced together this account from defecting soldiers and civilians in the protest movement:
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Turkey, having crossed the border on Friday night, an activist based in Jisr al-Shughour and trusted by experienced local reporters described how a funeral on June 4 for a man shot dead by plainclothes security a day earlier grew into a large anti-government protest.
"As the demonstration passed the headquarters of the military secret police, they opened fire right away and killed eight people," the activist, who was among the crowd, said. "But some of the secret police refused to open fire, and there were clashes between them. It was complete chaos."
The following day, the activist and others went back to the military police building, having heard explosions coming from the area the evening before. They found dozens of bodies, including that of the military police chief, identified by his ID card.
Jisr al-Shughour remained under popular control as the June 10 Friday demonstrations approached. Unwilling to rely on conscripted soldiers for fear that they too would join the revolution, Maher al-Assad, the president's brother, took his elite forces to lay waste to the city.
It was a repeat of the tactics used by his father, former President Hafez al-Assad, whose own brother commanded the military forces that leveled the city of Hama in 1982, killing an estimated 10,000 people in an effort to crush an uprising involving the Muslim Brotherhood.
Given the memory of that repression, Hama--Syria's fourth-largest city, with 800,000 people--was slow to join the movement. But as on Friday, June 3, an estimated 150,000 people took to the streets--and tens of thousands marched again two days later in funeral processions for the 65 killed in the initial protest amid a two-day general strike. The armed forces responded by occupying the city for several days.
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BY UNLEASHING Syria's most loyal armed forces, Bashar al-Assad is betting that a combination of barbarism and bribery will keep the regime intact.
Syria is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, with Sunni Muslim Arabs making up the biggest single group, but sizeable minorities of Christians and heterodox Muslims such as the Druze and the Assad's Alawite group. Most of the key security personnel have been Alawites, and that group has traditionally counted on the support of other minorities, as well as a layer of wealthy and politically connected Sunni businessmen.
The fear of sectarianism--that is, the ascendancy of the Sunni Muslim majority--has been manipulated for decades by the ruling Baath party, which points to the long sectarian civil war in Lebanon as an example of what would happen to Syria if the dictatorship was overthrown.
However, the contradictions of Assad's political and economic "reforms" since he took power a decade ago have destabilized Syrian politics.
A halting openness to democracy, followed by a wave of arrests, alienated the middle class while threatening the established order. At the same time, the conspicuous accumulation of wealth by the Assads' relatives, such as cell phone magnate Rami Makhlouf, has antagonized working people and the poor. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Syrians are squeezed by food inflation that was running at 13 percent in January, nearly double the rate of a year earlier. The price of dairy goods was rising at an annual rate of 27 percent as the year began.
On the eve of the revolt in February, the government began making food aid payments to help 420,000 vulnerable families--in a population of 23 million. Unemployment at that time was 12 percent, according to official statistics, but economists put the true figure at around 20 percent.
It is these economic conditions, along with growing discontent with the Syrian police state, that sparked a protest movement in Syria in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
The movement, at first highly localized, took on a national character despite the regime's attempts to pit region against region, sect against sect, Arab against Kurd. Moreover, the increasingly ferocious repression hasn't deterred masses of people from taking to the streets week after week, even though protesters know that some among them could be killed.
In the wake of the attack on Jisr al-Shughour, however, the opposition will have to achieve a greater level of organization.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria have tried to link the protests and put forward a basic platform, starting with the ouster of Bashar al-Assad and a national conference aimed at "the transition of the country to a democratic and pluralistic state based on freedom and equality for Syrian citizens. The task of this conference is ensuring a peaceful and safe transition of the current regime, in order to avert a violent collapse."
It is difficult to gauge the strength of opposition, which is divided between activists on the ground in Syria and exile groups of various political stripes, ranging from pro-U.S. figures to democrats and socialists.
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THE WEST has so far hedged its bets, cultivating the most conservative opposition figures and making loud rhetorical statements against Assad, but refraining from putting real pressure on the regime. Having attempted in recent years to detach Syria from its alliance with Iran, Washington hoped to convert Assad into an ally, repeating the transformation in its relationship with Qaddafi's Libya.
But now, as in the case of Libya, the scale of the repression against the revolution has presented a dilemma for Washington and its allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Europe. All had tacitly backed Assad's crackdown, fearful of both the implications of another revolutionary victory in the Arab world and the possible end of Syria's long cold peace with Israel, which has freed up Israel to periodically wage war in Lebanon and in Gaza.
Now, however, the massacre in Jisr al-Shughour could force the hand of the West. It's already provided an opening for hawkish politicians such as the Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham: "[I]f you really care about the Syrian people, preventing them from being slaughtered, you need to put on the table all options, including a model like we have in Libya," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Assad sees the issue in similar terms, according to Syria expert Joshua Landis:
We saw here [in Jisr al-Shughour] an attempt to organize an army--a rebel-organized military resistance to the Syrian government. The Syrians cannot allow that to happen and must move in with overwhelming force because they must not allow a Benghazi [the rebel capital in Libya] to form here, where rebels would have a physical base, and the CIA, MI6 and French intelligence could go in as they did in Libya to train and arm the opposition.
For its part, Turkey is putting pressure on Assad, a longstanding ally, by denouncing the repression and hosting a meeting of opposition groups. The former colonial power in Syria, Turkey has had growing economic ties with the current Syrian current regime. But now, it is exploring the possibility of a easing out Assad and fostering a government that would be in a closer orbit to it, as part of a contest with Iran for regional influence. As M.K. Bhadrakumar wrote at the Asia Times website:
In short, Syria stands right in the way of an expansion of Turkish influence in the Middle East. The present ruling party--so-called "neo-Ottomans"--in Turkey, finds this particularly frustrating as it harbors pretensions of being the inheritors of the Ottoman legacy in the Middle East. In short, Syria blocks Turkish ambitions as a Middle Eastern regional power that Europe will learn to respect and woo.
But as the U.S. and NATO war on Libya shows, imperialist powers are interested not in assisting the Arab revolution, but rolling it back and installing an acceptable pro-Western government.
The West may yet decide to allow Assad to continue trying to drown the revolution in blood in the name of "regional stability," and impose sanctions rather than intervene militarily. In either case, however, the U.S. and its allies will be trying to impose their interests--which are contrary to those of the mass of Syrian people.
The hope for the Syrian revolution lies with the women and men who began the struggle by protesting for democracy and dignity and against the torture and murder of their children. The workers who participated in demonstrations and strikes, the soldiers who mutinied against their commanders, the mothers who ignored threats to expose the savagery of the regime--they represent the hopes of all those who want to see the Arab revolution move ahead.