Syria: Testing Time


Syria remains relatively calm as efforts to destabilise its government through orchestrated attacks by rebels fail.

Life in the Syrian capital, Damascus, seems to be continuing as normal.  The streets and the mosques are crowded after the devout break their Ramazan fast in the evening.  The security presence is minimal.  In fact, there are more armed police and paramilitary men in central Delhi than in the heart of Damascus.  This does not mean that all of Syria has suddenly become calm.  Although the two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have not witnessed any major anti-government demonstrations or violence so far, smaller cities such as Homs, Jisr al-Shughour and Deraa continue to be rocked by intermittent protests and violence.

The Syrian Army has withdrawn from the smaller towns, but there are reports about civilian casualties every other day.  Many of those killed have been victims of sectarian clashes.  The government in Damascus does not want to publicise this fact as it gets busy dousing the fire.  One of the slogans preferred by the militant groups ranged against the government is “Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut”.  Alawites and Christians constitute sizable minorities in Syria.  The Sunni population is around 60 per cent.

Relative calm has now returned to the town of Hama though tensions are still visible.  On a visit to the city in the last week of August, this correspondent saw the impact of the violence unleashed against the government by organised gangs of militants.  The government had responded by briefly sending in troops to restore order.  Many people lost their lives.  Among them were policemen and security personnel.  Government buildings, especially those housing the security forces, were specifically targeted.

The newly appointed Governor of Hama, Anas Abd-Alrazeq, presented evidence to the media about the well-planned and supervised mayhem that was witnessed in the city in July and early August.  Hama, like nearby Homs, has been a stronghold of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.  In 1982, President Hafez al-Assad had crushed a revolt in the city.  The death toll at the time was estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000.  Obviously, the scars left behind by that grave episode are still to heal.

Outside the hall in which the Hama Governor addressed the visiting mediapersons, a small group of anti-government demonstrators, including young men and women, were boldly shouting slogans and airing their grievances.  The police and the security forces made no attempts to stop them.  The demonstrators complained of torture and other abuses by the security forces during the course of the recent events.  One activist said he would welcome any kind of help from America.  His argument was that Russia and China were propping up the Syrian government by supplying weapons.  It was obvious that the young protesters had been trained well in the art of propaganda warfare too.

The walls of Hama were full of anti-government graffiti, much of it crudely painted over.  The fact that the government is also allowing small protests to be staged and publications critical of its policies to be printed is seen as a welcome sign.  On the streets of Damascus, English-language magazines such as Syria Today and Forward containing articles critical of the Syrian government and its handling of the protests are available freely.

The most graphic instance of the brutality exhibited by the anti-government rioters in Hama was the dumping of the bodies of three tortured government soldiers from a bridge over the river Orontes.  Bloodstains were still visible on the spot from which the bodies of the soldiers were dumped into the fast-flowing river, when this reporter visited the site.  The video of the heinous act is available on the Internet.  The Hama Governor said that the local populace helped the civic authorities clear up the barricades and the mess that weeks of turmoil had created.  In many parts of Hama, the local people who had suffered many days of lawlessness welcomed the army with flowers.  The Governor said that stories that the military was still present in the city and widespread protests were continuing were canards spread by vested interests controlling media outlets such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

Abd-Alrazeq added that the two media outlets had gone to the extent of spreading false information that the army tanks had flattened mosques and hospitals.  This correspondent found that the only institutions destroyed were police stations and government buildings that were gutted in the town centre.  Diplomats based in Damascus are also of the view that much of the reportage by the two Arab satellite channels was highly biased and politically motivated.

The story about Syrian naval ships allegedly firing on a Palestinian refugee camp in the coastal city of Latakia, first aired by the two Arab channels, was picked up by the Western media and given credibility.  Syria immediately issued a denial.  Diplomats said that the Syrian Army had requested the leaders in the densely populated Palestinian camp to hand over a few militants hiding in their midst.  Latakia had witnessed large-scale violence in July in which protesters and soldiers were killed.  When the Palestinian community leaders conveyed their inability to get the militants out of the camps, the Syrian Army had no other option but to send in troops.  There were a handful of civilian casualties in the operations that followed.

Syria had housed the Palestinians on prime real estate in the Mediterranean town after they were expelled from Libya following the Oslo Peace Accords in the mid-1990s.  The former Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, was resolutely opposed to the peace treaty with Israel.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which own the two television stations, are being suspected of materially helping the anti-government groups, which are increasingly resorting to armed insurrection.  More than 500 Syrian security forces have been killed so far.  The United Nations has put the civilian casualties at around 2,000 since the upsurge in the violence began more than five months ago.

In late August, there was yet another attack targeting the armed forces.  Thirteen soldiers, including an officer, were killed in the recent attacks in the governorate of Homs and further north in al-Rastan.  Senior Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, are not yet ready to reveal the names of the militant groups involved in the orchestrated attacks on the security forces.  The Hama Governor only went to the extent of saying that those involved probably belonged to “Salafist” (militant Sunni) groups.  The Swedish media have said that 80 to 90 per cent of the funding for the Salafist groups comes from Saudi Arabia with the United States’ tacit support.

The Hudson Institute, a leading American think tank, has said that the Barack Obama administration has decided, along with Turkey, to back the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.  In July, Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, convened a meeting on Syria.  Most of the Syrian invitees belonged to the Brotherhood.  The secular opposition, which includes a wing of the Syrian Communist Party, was ignored.  “Missing from the invitation were Kurdish leaders, Sunni liberals, Assyrians and Christian spokesmen,” the Hudson Institute report said.

According to various reports, the U.S. State Department made a deal with Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood either to share power with President Bashar al-Assad to stabilise the government or to replace him if the effort failed.  In Egypt, too, the Obama administration seems to be in favour of a deal between the still powerful Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brothers, currently the largest political force in that country.

Walid Muallem, who met a small group of Indian journalists in his office, said that the government was carrying out a thorough inquiry into the attacks and would soon provide evidence about those involved and the sources of their funding and arms supplies.  He conveyed his government’s happiness with the “objective position” taken by the Indian government at the U.N. Security Council and other international fora.  India, along with China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa, has been opposing outside interference in the internal affairs of Syria and want the Syrians to sort out their own problems.

President al-Assad, in an interview aired on Syrian television on August 21, warned against any outside intervention in the affairs of his country.  He said that Syria’s geopolitical position and military capabilities would guarantee “greater consequences” for those who dared to carry out a military intervention.

The U.S. and the European Union had demanded that al-Assad step down.  The President emphasised that such a demand was not even worthy of a response, adding that he was elected by the Syrian people and not appointed by the West.

Syria will need more consistent support from countries such as India as it braces itself for immediate pressure from the West in the form of a more punitive Security Council resolution.  India was among the countries that abstained during a recent vote at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on a draft resolution criticising Syria for human rights violations.  The resolution called on the Syrian government to put an immediate end to the excessive use of force and stop the intimidation of peaceful protesters.  Russia, China, Cuba and Ecuador were the only four countries that stood by Syria and voted against the proposed resolution.  The Russian envoy to the UNHRC described the resolution as “politicised and lopsided”.  Russia is planning to present a draft resolution of its own in the coming days at the Security Council.

The Western media had talked of mass graves near Deraa, where the current unrest has its origins.  Human rights groups found only six bodies.  Walid Muallem said the militants had been burying their dead in unmarked graves so as to avoid identification.  The other allegation against the Syrian government was that it was implementing a scorched earth policy in the cities that had witnessed massive anti-government protests and violence.  “This is total misrepresentation.  The West is going to absurd lengths to vilify the regime,” said a senior Asian diplomat based in Damascus.

Walid Muallem said the government would allow a UNHRC fact-finding mission into the country only after the investigations by Syria’s own Human Rights Commission was over.  He said other human rights groups had been given permission to visit Syria.  He said many foreign powers were behind the Hama violence.  “The Hama protests are under investigation.  Many outside powers are behind it.  The American embassy in Damascus is also instigating the protesters,” the Foreign Minister said.

The American and French Ambassadors had made unauthorised visits to Hama at the height of the recent violence and had even met the protest leaders there.  Walid Muallem said the American Ambassador was in direct contact with certain elements in the opposition.

He warned Turkey against interfering in the internal affairs of his country.  Syria and Turkey share an 850-km-long border.  A motley crowd of exiled dissidents have set up a “transitional council” in Istanbul.  “We urge Turkey to respect our sovereignty,” the Foreign Minister said.  Until the crisis erupted earlier in the year, the two countries had managed to build excellent bilateral relations.  But now, with Washington urging Ankara to play a lead role in the destabilisation of Syria, relations have once again deteriorated sharply.  In 1998, the two countries were on the verge of a war as Turkey accused Syria of providing bases for the rebellious Kurds.

Walid Muallem was also critical of the additional sanctions imposed by the West on Syria.  “Economic sanctions are an act against the well-being of the Syrian people,” he said.

The government is angry with the way some U.N. agencies have been compiling the civilian casualty figures based on speculative satellite television reports.  They do not bother to reconcile their reports with hospital records released by the government.

The West wants to use the alleged instance of widespread human rights abuse to corner Syria in the Security Council.  This was the game plan the West adopted against Libya, first persuading the Security Council to impose a “no-fly zone” and then using the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to facilitate regime change.  Describing the present constitution of the Security Council as “an instrument of the U.S.”, Walid Muallem warned that “no country is immune from destabilisation”.  He accused many Arab countries of having a “special relationship” with the U.S. and Western Europe and helping in the efforts under way to destabilise Syria.

The Americans, according to Walid Muallem, are encouraging these efforts, as they think they will be able to isolate the two main resistance movements in the region, Hizbollah and Hamas, and in the process help their principal ally, Israel, to ride roughshod over the Palestinians.  Both Hizbollah and Hamas have strong links with the Syrian government.  Today, after the fall of Qaddafi, Syria and to some extent Lebanon are the only countries to have independent foreign policies opposed to American hegemony in the region.

“The geographical location of Syria in the region is very important.  The Americans want to prevent Syria from playing a meaningful role.  They want to divide Syria and the neighbouring states into smaller states to implement their blueprint for the region,” the Foreign Minister said.  This was the original plan of the Bush administration after the 2003 Iraqi occupation was completed.  A senior George W. Bush administration official had said at the time that Syria was a “ripe fruit ready for the picking”.

According to Walid Muallem, immediately after the Iraq war ended, the then U.S. Defence Secretary, Colin Powell, visited Damascus and presented President al-Assad with six demands, which included cutting off links with Hizbollah and Hamas and distancing his government from Iran, with which it traditionally had close links.  Al-Assad refused to kowtow to the demands of the U.S.  The Bush administration immediately started accelerating its destabilisation efforts by pumping in funds for anti-government groups and “pro-democracy” activists.

Walid Muallem said that the recent decisions of the Syrian government had shown that the well-being of the people was of utmost importance.  He reiterated the President’s commitment to hold free and fair elections by February 2012.  This would make Syria a “shining example for the rest of the region”, he said, acknowledging that “certain demands” of the opposition were legitimate and had prompted the government to implement reforms.  “We will allow political parties to function freely and let them have their own media forums.”

But it takes two hands to clap.  To make free elections a reality, the cooperation of the opposition is necessary.  The opposition, bolstered by the support of the U.S. and its allies in the region, is in no mood to compromise on either negotiating a peaceful end to the protests or participating in the elections.  As Walid Muallem told this correspondent, the protests in Syria are attempting to take the shape of an “armed insurrection”.

However, the Foreign Minister sought to point out that any comparison of the situation on hand with that in Libya was misplaced.  “We don’t have enough oil to be as attractive to the West as Libya.  We are not divided like the Libyans were, nor do we have an open revolution.  We have only some religious and sectarian groups out on the streets.  Damascus and Aleppo, the two main cities, are calm,” he said.

John Cherian, who was recently in Damascus and Hama, is Associate Editor of Frontline in India.  This article was first published in the 10-23 September 2011 issue of Frontline; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

| Print