Wednesday, July 27, 2011
The Syrian Revolution Gets Organized
To Topple Assad, It Takes a Minority
By BASSMA KODMANI
Published: July 31, 2011
AFTER four months of popular demonstrations and ferocious repression, including a bloody crackdown on the central city of Hama on Sunday, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, still refuses to step down, insisting that he can reform his regime.
What is keeping Mr. Assad in power is the extensive security apparatus that was engineered by his father, Hafez al-Assad, and is dominated by their fellow Alawites, a minority Shiite sect.
Alawites, who constitute just 12 percent of Syria’s population, have mostly thrown their support behind Mr. Assad, fearful that if he is overthrown they will be massacred. If the democratic opposition in Syria is going to succeed, it must first convince the Alawites that they can safely turn against the Assad regime.
This is not as improbable as many observers believe. As the bodies have piled up — security forces have killed around 1,500 civilians since March — Alawite leaders have not been blind to the rapid erosion of the government’s power and its inability to restore control.
If they are assured of their safety, key Alawite leaders might begin to withdraw their support for the Assad family and cast their lot with — or at least tacitly assist — the opposition. A signal from them could persuade powerful Alawite army commanders to defect and take other officers with them.
Alawites have dominated Syria since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970. But unlike his father, Bashar has never been able to bring the country’s security apparatus fully under his control since taking power in 2000. Instead, he has tried to cultivate a gentle and humane image and broaden the base of the regime by reaching out to the Sunnis, who make up most of Syria’s population. He married a wealthy Sunni woman whose family is from Homs — a stronghold of the current revolt — and actively encouraged the building of Sunni mosques and Koran schools.
But he hasn’t altered the total domination of Syria’s security forces by his Alawite clan. In the last decade, Bashar left his brother Maher al-Assad to organize the security sector with the support of his uncle and cousins, who control the ubiquitous secret police.
Since mid-March, as suppression of the protests became increasingly violent, the army has purged officers and soldiers — including many hitherto loyal Sunni troops — to reduce the chance of a revolt. The infamous Fourth Division, led by Maher and composed mostly of die-hard Alawite loyalists, played a major role in the crackdown. It is backed by an organized group of thugs, who form a parallel militia in civilian clothes.
Even when a Sunni general is in command, an Alawite deputy is often the one who holds real power. As a result of this structure, the army cannot be relied upon to carry out violent repression, nor is it able to defect as a whole.
Driven by fear of execution, disaffected soldiers have quietly worked to undermine the regime. Opposition leaders report that sympathetic soldiers and officers have sometimes warned them of imminent attacks. However, the army’s top leadership is unlikely to collectively withdraw its support from the government, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia — and opposition forces should not put too much hope in this scenario.
It is the Alawite population as a whole, not the army, that holds the key to change. But the Alawites will need assurances from the opposition before they abandon Mr. Assad.
Alawite religious and community leaders have tried reaching out to Sunni religious figures, including leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the last month to obtain guarantees that their security and well-being will be protected in the post-Assad era; the opposition should offer such promises, which would encourage Alawites to join the revolt en masse.
The onus falls on the Sunni majority to reassure Alawites and other minorities like Christians, Druse and Shiites — who believe they need the regime’s protection — that they will not be subjected to acts of vengeance. These Sunni religious and political leaders can save Syria from its sectarian demons.
Only Syrians can initiate this delicate process; foreign governments, whether Arab or Western, have limited roles to play. The Syrian psyche is shaped by memories of foreign interference, something the Assad regime did not invent, but has exploited.
In Syria, anyone who calls for outside intervention is likely to be branded a traitor; any Western threat of military action would therefore hurt the opposition more than the regime. Outside powers can play a useful role by declaring they will not use military force. Such a statement would weaken Mr. Assad’s argument that the uprising is the result of foreign meddling and remove a major source of anxiety among Syria’s hesitant majority.
Syrians of all stripes are beginning to understand that everyone is a victim of this regime and that the real conspiracy is that of the Assads themselves. Sunni leaders must act now to prevent the revolt from descending into civil war by assuring minorities that they will not face reprisals in a new Syria. This could bring Alawites into the opposition’s ranks and seal the regime’s demise.
Bassma Kodmani is the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative.
The Syrian Revolution Gets Organized & News From Around the League
WASHINGTON, July 26, (Agencies): The United States on Monday denounced Syria’s army as “barbaric” and “reprehensible” after the latest violence, renewing its charges that President Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy. The State Department highlighted the death of 12-year-old boy Talhat Dalat, who human rights activists said died of his injuries on Saturday after a policeman earlier shot him at close range during an anti-regime rally.
“The behavior of Syria’s security forces, including other such barbaric shootings, widescale arrests of young men and boys, brutal torture, and other abuses of basic human rights, is reprehensible,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. “President Assad must understand that he is not indispensable, and we believe he is the cause of Syria’s instability, not the key to its stability,” she said.
“The regime should make no mistake that the world is watching, and those responsible will be held accountable for their crimes,” she said, repeating Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks that Assad has “lost legitimacy.” Security forces have killed another three people and arrested so many that Syria has become a “huge prison,” activists said on Tuesday, as the crackdown on dissent shows no signs of easing.
Two men and a woman were shot dead on Monday in separate incidents in and around the flashpoint central city of Homs and in the northwestern city of Idlib, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
They were killed by security forces manning checkpoints, the Observatory’s chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP in Nicosia on Tuesday. One man was killed as he was heading to work in Homs, a bastion of anti-regime dissent where the army has been conducting a bloody crackdown since last week, he said.
Another man was shot dead on Monday night when security forces manning a checkpoint in Talbissah outside Homs opened fire, Abdel Rahman added. The woman was riding a motorcycle with her husband and child in Idlib, and they had just driven past a security checkpoint when she was killed, he said. Abdel Rahman also reported “heavy gunfire” on Tuesday in Homs.
Meanwhile, the National Organisation for Human Rights accused the Syrian authorities of turning the country into a “huge prison” by arresting hundreds of people, despite lifting emergency rule in April.
“Syria has become a huge prison,” NOHR chief Ammar Qorabi said in a statement on Tuesday which also gave the names of some 250 people who have been arrested nationwide in the past few weeks.
Several other people have also been detained but their names could not be confirmed, the statement said.
“The Syrian authorities are still pursuing arbitrary arrests of political activists, academics and civilians and storming homes as Syrian civilians continue to disappear by the hundreds,” it said.
“This is a flagrant violation of the basic rights that are guaranteed by the Syrian constitution, despite the lifting of the state of emergency.”
THE REVOLUTION GETS ORGANIZED
Meanwhile, representatives of Syrian anti-regime protesters are to meet on Wednesday in Turkey to discuss coordination and strategy, a Syrian activist said.
Bahiya Mardini, who heads the Cairo-based Arab Free Speech Committee, told AFP in Nicosia on Tuesday that the meeting would be the first of its kind since dissent against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad erupted in mid-March.
Syrian dissidents have already met in Istanbul, but there has been no gathering of people directly connected to the almost daily protests that have shaken Syria since March 15.
The Istanbul meeting will run until Saturday and focus on “developping the coordination between activists and working groups of the revolution,” said Mardini.
She said training sessions will be held during the four-day gathering, as well as workshops covering several aspects of revolutionary work, from the legal, political and media aspects to logistics.
On Wednesday, delegates from the so-called Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union will submit “papers for discussion and other documents about the revolution.”
Earlier this month some 350 Syrian dissidents gathered in Istanbul for a so-called National Salvation Congress to debate strategies to oust the Assad regime.
Two French rights groups will file legal complaints against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and members of his entourage in an attempt to push the government to determine whether they hold assets in France.
Sherpa and Transparency International France, which earlier this year filed complaints against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Tunisia’s ousted president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, said in a statement they wanted the government to make public all of its findings.
“The objective is get an investigation open that would then identify assets that they may own in France either in their own name or through intermediaries .... and then to freeze them so they are not transferred to uncooperative jurisdictions,” the rights’ groups said in a statement on Tuesday.
Egypt’s hospitalised former President Hosni Mubarak, who is due to stand trial next week over the killing of protesters, is weak and refusing solid food, the official news agency MENA reported on Tuesday.
The statement about Mubarak’s condition followed reports that he had died. The condition of the 83-year-old former leader has been a frequent subject for speculation. Many Egyptians see his illness as a ploy so he can avoid trial.
Mubarak, toppled in February by a popular uprising, has been in hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh since April when he was first questioned by the authorities. He has been charged with involvement in the killing of protesters and abuse of power and is due to stand trial on Aug. 3.
A Cairo court is handling the case but judicial and security sources told Reuters this month that the trial could take place in Sharm el-Sheikh. There has been no official statement so far suggesting the trial would be moved.
Mubarak “is completely refusing to eat food but consumes some liquids and juice only. He lost a lot of weight and suffers weakness and severe infirmity,” MENA quoted Mohamed Fathallah, head of the hospital where Mubarak is being treated, as saying.
The report also quoted a medical source as saying medical supervisors would decide in the next few hours whether to put him on a drip or to continue normal feeding, saying his current food intake was “not sufficient to live.”
Health Minister Amr Mohamed Helmi told Al Arabiya satellite channel that Mubarak remained in poor health.
Protesters have accused the army council now ruling Egypt of dragging its feet over the trial of their former commander-in-chief. They say the generals do not want to publicly humiliate the decorated war veteran whom they served for years.
A court ordered on Monday that the case of former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and his aides be joined with those of Mubarak and his sons, as the charges were the same.
The daily al-Masry al-Youm, citing a security source, said on Tuesday this could mean Adli and others would be taken to Sharm el-Sheikh.
Clashes broke out on Tuesday between workers at an industrial free zone in the Egyptian canal city of Ismailiya and military police in which 38 people were injured, witnesses and medics told AFP.
At least 5,000 workers from the Ismailiya Public Free Zone, where 80 factories produce textiles and leather, had tried to leave the industrial compound where they have been striking and were blocked by military police, witnesses said.
The military fired gunshots into the air and blocked the exit to the compound. Workers then pelted stones at the troops, who hurled them back.
The clashes left 36 workers and two military police officers injured. Of these, 23 people needed hospital treatment, medics said.
Fifteen Egyptian groups called on Wednesday for women’s rights to be guaranteed in the new constitution, after a popular uprising that toppled the regime paved the way for a new charter.
“We are not proposing a new constitution, but we want women’s rights to be included,” Amina ElBendary, a professor of Arab and Islamic Civilisation at the American University in Cairo, and one of the signatories, told a news conference.
“We have simply put forward some suggestions of clauses which could be included in the next constitution,” she said.
After eight weeks of research in various parts of Egypt, the 15 groups are calling for a women’s quota in parliament and in local councils, as well as equal rights for women at work and in education.
“The women we have met are very concerned about their rights, they want the law to protect them,” said Azza Soleiman, a long-time women’s rights activist.
“The women are not questioning the sharia,” the Islamic law on which personal status laws are based, “but they want the law clearly defined because the interpretations can vary,” she said.
“We don’t want Egypt to adopt the same interpretation as in Saudi Arabia,” said Soleiman.
The statement comes as Egyptians await a new constitution, after the previous one was suspended by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took power when president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February.
An international consensus may be emerging over allowing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to remain in the country if he steps down.
Western countries and Libyan rebels long insisted Gaddafi leave the country, as a condition for ending the five-month-old civil war.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday became the latest Western official to suggest Gaddafi could remain in Libya if he resigns. His French counterpart made such a proposal last week. The White House has said it’s up to the Libyan people. Gaddafi has given no sign he is ready to leave office.
Suggesting a shift in position, Libyan opposition leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said Monday that Gaddafi could stay in Libya if he resigns. Abdul-Jalil spoke to The Wall Street Journal.
Libya’s capital is suffering shortages of fuel, medicine and cash despite “aspects of normalcy,” UN fact finders said, as the top US military officer deemed NATO’s air campaign as at a “stalemate.”
Meanwhile, NATO said on Tuesday it had “no evidence” that civilian facilities were hit in air raids near Zliten east of Tripoli after the regime accused the alliance of destroying a clinic there and killing seven people.
But the alliance did warn it would bomb former civilian facilities, including factories, warehouses and agricultural sites, being used by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces to launch attacks.
UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya Laurence Hart, in a statement issued late on Monday, said the week-long fact-finding UN mission to Libya had identified several problems besetting Gaddafi’s regime, which has been battling rebels for the past five months.
“Although the mission observed aspects of normalcy in Tripoli, members identified pockets of vulnerability where people need urgent humanitarian assistance,” Hart’s statement said.
The health sector is under strain, having lost thousands of foreign workers at the beginning of the conflict, it said.
“Medical supplies, including vaccines, are rapidly running low, and the mission received reports of heavy psychosocial impact of the conflict, mainly on children and women,” it added.
“Although basic food items are available in the markets, prices are rising and there are concerns over the sustainability of supplies into the city especially as the (Muslim) holy month of Ramadan approaches,” it added.
The UN fact finders also visited Khoms and Zliten, east of Tripoli and close to the frontline, as well as Garyan south of the capital, where they found “a significant” influx of internally displaced people.
“Fuel shortages have become a pressing problem, and the UN team observed long queues at gas stations, some of which had closed down,” the statement said.
“Reduced availability of cash is also a serious concern because many Libyans withdrew their savings from banks at the beginning of the crisis. Banks are restricting cash withdrawals for individual account holders.”
In Brussels, NATO said alliance warplanes struck military targets near Zliten on Monday but there was no immediate confirmation that a clinic had also been hit.
Foreign reporters taken to Zliten by government minders and shown what they were told was the remains of a clinic hit by a NATO bomb. A local official said seven people were killed.
Alliance military spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie said in Brussels on Tuesday that in recent days NATO had hit a concrete factory near Brega where regime forces were hiding and firing multi-barrel rocket launchers.
“Pro-Gaddafi forces are increasingly occupying facilities which once held a civilian purpose,” Lavoie told reporters in a video news conference from the operation’s headquarters in Naples, Italy.
Such sites include stables, agricultural facilities, commercial and industrial warehouses, factories and basic food processing plants.
“By occupying and using these facilities the regime has transformed them into military installations from which it commands and conducts attacks, causing them to lose their formerly protected status and rendering them valid and necessary military objectives for NATO,” Lavoie said.
NATO’s daily operational update said it had hit a military facility, armoured vehicles, tanks and light military vehicles around Brega on Monday.
It also hit a command centre, anti-aircraft weapons, multiple rocket launchers and a military vehicle in the Tripoli area and armoured fighting vehicles near Garyan.
NATO said Tuesday that bombing in Libya will continue as long as needed despite growing reluctance among some countries to participate, and Muammar Gaddafi cannot “wait us out.”
“As long as his forces continue to attack or threaten civilians, and as long as they continue to try and cut off humanitarian aid, our operations will continue in Libya,” spokeswoman Carmen Romero said.
When NATO took command of operations, it expected that would quickly persuade Gaddafi to yield power. But the bombing campaign — now in its fifth month — has yet to dislodge the regime.
Eight NATO members have been participating in air strikes in Libya: the US, Britain, France, Belgium, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Italy. They have carried out a total of more than 6,200 strike sorties.
But this coalition has been gradually fraying.
The United States was the first to limit its participation, deciding to only provide support to the European allies. Then Italy withdrew its only aircraft carrier and part of its air force contingent. Meanwhile, Norway has announced it will pull all of its F-16 warplanes out of the operation by Aug 1.
Still, NATO has said Gaddafi should not count on any change in the tempo of operations.
“(NATO) nations are absolutely determined to continue that mission,” Romero said. “Gaddafi cannot wait us out.”
Yemeni forces said on Tuesday they killed 10 al-Qaeda fighters who attacked their camp outside the southern town of Zinjibar, the scene of fierce clashes between government troops and militants.
Islamists have seized several areas in the surrounding province of Abyan in recent months — raising fears in the West and neighbouring Saudi Arabia that al-Qaeda’s Yemen wing is expanding, taking advantage of a security vacuum left by prolonged anti-government protests.
Yemen has been rocked by more than five months of demonstrations against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The country was left in political limbo when Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment following a bomb attack on his palace last month.
Yemen’s army launched an offensive last week to push back militants in Abyan, on Yemen’s southern coast, but has so far only regained one military site.
An army spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the al-Qaeda fighters attacked one of its camps on Monday night.
“The 10 militants were killed by heavy shells before they could make it to the military camp,” he said, adding that one of those killed was a senior member of the militant group.
An army general told Yemeni television late on Monday the army’s offensive in Abyan was facing fierce resistance.
“Our forces are engaged in difficult clashes with al-Qaeda in Zinjibar,” said Mohammed al-Somali. “The fighting is large and violent, on a larger scale than most would probably imagine.”
About 90,000 people have fled the violence in Abyan, most of them heading to the nearby port city of Aden, which lies east of a strategic shipping strait that channels about 3 million barrels of oil a day.
Security analysts have cast doubt on Yemen’s reports that its forces have killed dozens of al-Qaeda militants and several senior leaders, noting that many of those fighting in Abyan are likely members of other militant groups.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if there were puritanical militants who want to see closer adherence to what the consider to be Islamic values but didn’t necessarily share the trans national agenda of AQAP (al-Qaeda’s Yemen wing),” said security analyst Jeremy Binnie, of IHS Jane’s.
Saleh’s opponents accuse him of letting his forces ease their grip around areas suspected of hosting militants, in order to convince foreign governments that only he stands in the way of a militant takeover.
Both the United States and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, targets of foiled attacks by al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, are wary of growing turmoil in Yemen, which they fear gives room to the militant group to operate.
Washington and Riyadh hoped to bring more stability to Yemen by pushing Saleh into signing a Gulf-brokered transition plan, but the 69-year-old leader has backed out of inking the deal three times.
He has instead vowed to return to Yemen and start a national dialogue, angering protesters in the streets who are still insisting on his resignation.