I received this through a friend; best report I have read.
Ninth Week of the Syrian Spring
This weekend, the Syrian Spring [entered] its ninth week, but still it remains too early to predict where it is going. The picture that is emerging for us here because of our work is very fuzzy, in spite of many conversations with people in Syria, with journalists and diplomats. To me it seems like a stalemate, in which the demonstrators are not achieving any real advances, but are still faced with a rising death toll. On the one hand, the regime is resorting to ever more drastic measures: with by now 800 dead demonstrators, the Syrian Spring is unfortunately already the most bloody of the recent Arab uprising (with the exception of the civil war in Libya).
More than 9000 people have been arrested and detained over the past weeks, and at least two prison- and torture-camps have been set up in football stadiums, countless apartments have been raided without legal basis, military units with tanks and snipers have occupied and devastated suburbs of Damascus and Homs, Daraa in the South, and most recently also the coastal town of Baniyas. The regime in Damascus is trying everything to systematically break and prevent the dynamics and actions of the protest movement.
On the other hand, last Friday saw the largest number of demonstrations, in more places and with people than ever before. And as soon as a town is surrounded and besieged, large demonstrations break our in neighbouring towns (which usually then also get surrounded a few days later). From my perspective, the government has not yet managed to effectively crush the protest and break people’s courage. But the protest movement has one central problem: the middle class in Aleppo and Damascus has so far hardly participated in the protests, something that, if it were to happen, would greatly strengthen the protest movement.
It is likely that the economic costs of this rebellion (parts of the country are repeatedly paralysed, there is hardly any foreign investment) will soon make the middle class realise the importance of political reform. It is thus most likely just a question of time, when they, too, will start resisting the regime. In our work here in Beirut we are constantly torn between euphoria and horror. The network is growing ever larger and more stable, and more structures are also emerging, albeit slowly. One of our achievements is that nearly all major media outlets by now rely on our information, that we collate from the Syrian network.
Alongside Rami [Nakhle, a prominent Syrian cyber activist], there are two activists working almost full-time on this. It was thanks to our extensive media work that today Rami spoke to the Liberal group in the European Parliament via Skype. Unfortunately this work is anything but safe, especially for the activists in Syria. In spite of excellent contacts to all the CNNs in the world we have been forced to realise how helpless we are when a good friend and activist in Syria is arrested and disappeared by the secret service. This happened just the day before yesterday. In last week’s report I focused on the protests, their composition and perspective. Today I want to try to sketch an outline of the new strategy employed over the last ten days by the Syrian state.
The new (Iranian) strategy
For the last ten days or so, we have been experiencing a massive strategic shift in the way the Syrian government deals with demonstrations. The Assad regime, no doubt surprised by the scope and unrelenting courage of the demonstrations, initially reacted with a mix of a feigned readiness to dialogue, and the use of live ammunition against the demonstrators. But instead of dead demonstrators achieving the hoped-for deterrent, every death made the demonstrations grow larger. Hundreds of people died in the first few weeks alone – Assad had fallen into the same trap as the other Arab dictators before him who had tried to break the will of the insurrections with guns and murder. For the last ten days, however, we have seen the government’s initially confused and weak behaviour give way to a new strategy.
Although people are still killed at demonstrations, these deaths are not intended on a large scale, they are rather collateral damage, and can be blamed on overwhelmed local security forces – they are not really in the state’s interests. The new strategy, rather, consists of arresting massive numbers if people, keep them detained for at least a week, and to torture them during that time. People are usually not arrested on the grounds of concrete suspicions, but more so based on their belonging to certain target groups. In Daraa and Baniyas, the last two weeks saw the arbitrary arrest of thousands of men between 20 and 35 years of age, in some suburbs of Damascus entire neighbourhoods have been emptied out by arrests.
The pattern by which these arrests proceed seems to always be the same: the place is surrounded by security police, the army’s fourth division and sometimes the presidential guard, at the same time, electricity and phone lines and networks are cut, while marksmen are positioned on the roofs. This creates an extremely effective, though unannounced, curfew. The next step are house-to-house raids and battles in order to detain people. When the security forces are done in one place, they are ordered to the next, there to arrest people in the same way.
For the regime, this new strategy has several advantages: it first of all leads to fewer funerals, which often turned into powerful demonstrations; second, the international response, the outside pressure is far more muted than if there are lots of deaths as in previous weeks (the reporting is sometimes very much focused on casualty figures); and third, the government manages to intimidate a far greater number of people than before with these mass arrests and through torture, simply because they affect (or might affect) far more people than the killings before. That most of those detained are released after no more than a week seems to us to not be due to capacity problems (as in: too many people in too few jails), but seems to rather be part of a strategy.
The people are meant to talk about the terror, the physical and psychological abuse in order to create more terror and deterrent. As long as the government manages to continue to exclude the international media from Syria and as long as the world does not see images of detainees and torture equipment, then this strategy of arresting and torturing ever larger numbers of people to create ever more deterrent seems to be successful.
So far the resistance movement has failed to develop a strategy that could counter this weakening – although the regime’s insidious strategy is far from being a nerw form. Some two years ago, the Green Wave in Iran was crushed by very similar means. We are therefore not surprised to hear – from various well-informed sources, including diplomatic circles – that there has been, over the last few weeks, massive strategic exchange between Tehran and Damascus (a number of ‘security advisors’ is also said to have been sent to Syria from Iran). By implementing this new strategy the government has also stopped all attempts to find a political solution (e.g. by way of reforms).
For weeks Assad and his government have been silent on this. So far, however, the international community has also not made any recognisable efforts towards a political solutions. A fact that many activists here simply do not understand. We still hope that we can manage to make this insidious new strategy, and the pictures of the thousands of detainees and torture victims, visible to the people in Syria and the outside world.
The only thing that can stop this brutality is growing pressure from the inside as well as the outside. But most of all we hope that in spite of or maybe even because of this new wave of repression, this Friday will once again see tens of thousands of people on the street to continue to risk their freedom and physical health in order to keep up their fight for freedom and democracy.