Anti-government protests in Syria have added more fuel to the fire of the Arab Spring.The unrest broke out in March, 2011, in the city of Daraa on the Israel-Jordan border, and soon spread to other districts, turning into clashes with the army.
On Match 29th tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Aleppo, Latakia, Homs and Hama to express their support to President Bashar Assad. However, the anti-government protests continued, mainly in areas bordering Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and grew even tenser. The bloodiest incidents took place in Jisral-Shughour with the population of 50,000, on the Turkish border: then some 120 police and army officers were killed. Some 10,000 residents of Jisral-Shughour fled their homes toward the Turkish border, fearing bloodshed as troops with tanks approached, under orders to hit back after the government accused armed bands there of killing its security men. Some of the refugees, however, returned home soon afterward.
As a member of the Russian delegation visiting Syria on 20-24 August, I could see the photos of the service men killed in Jisral-Shughour – many of the bodies were quartered and burnt. Witnesses said a group of armed men attacked cars 100 km outside Damascus, pulled out drivers and passengers and started beating them if the cars were decorated with Assad`s portraits or any other symbols of his regime.
When in Hama, we saw what remained from the Officers Club, which was destroyed and burnt down. Witnesses told us that the militants entered the city, contacted jobless youth and those already involved in criminal activity, gave them some alcohol, money and all necessary arms, including Molotov cocktails. A group of about one hundred men attacked the Prosecutor`s Office building and set a room for security personnel on fire: several men were burnt to death, while others were shot dead. Many other Interior Ministry officers, as well as army personnel and their families also fell victim to the bloody attacks.
While we stayed in Hama, we learned from Al Baas that the militants attacked a police station in Homs (100 km away from Hama). The incident took place close to the city administration building, exactly at the time when UN observers were leaving the office. Homs and Hama are known as towns controlled by the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1980s ‘brothers’ attempted a coup but faced a tough army crackdown.
We visited a military hospital in Damascus, where we saw wounded officers. Nearly 400 wounded officers were hospitalized there since the beginning of the unrest in March. Most of them suffered gun shot wounds on body parts unprotected with bullet-proof vests, which means that the shots were made by snipers. Our Syrian colleagues told us which scheme had been used to stage the unrest: an armed provocateur was sent into a group of protesters, while a sniper was already on a roof nearby. As soon as the demonstrators approached the scene cordonned off by the police, snipers started firing at police officers in order to force them to open fire at the demonstrators, as well as at the protesters to let fake eyewitnesses take pictures and make a video footage for the media.
Our delegation was demonstrated some of those footages, which proved that the opposition forces behaved as if they were real militants: how they tortured and executed police officers, how they set ambulance cars and passenger buses ablaze, and how they seized weapons and jeep vehicles, their identification numbers saying that the cars belonged to some countries of the Gulf region. Different sources say more than 2,000 demonstrators were killed in Syria in March-August, along with over 500 army and police officers.
Syriais the only anti-Israeli Arab state, which has no peace accord with Tel-Aviv (Egypt and Jordan had signed peace agreements with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively). The Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights in 1967 – the area internationally regarded as a Syrian sovereign territory – added to the tensions between the two countries. In June 2011 a group of Syrian demonstrators attempted to enter the disputed territory but was ousted by the Israeli border police. The clashes claimed more than 20 lives.
The weakening position of Syria, which has had friendly ties with Iran since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, also in terms of confessional majority (the ruling class in Syria comprises mainly of Alawites, who belong to a branch of Shia Islam) is also a plus to Ankara. The Turkish government, represented mainly by moderate Islamists (Prime Minister and President both belong to the Muslim Brotherhood) sympathize with the Syrian ‘brothers’, who are opposed to Damascus. Apart from this, Turkey, which proclaimed itself a super power, remembers that since the 16th century till the end of WW II Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire. The right-wing parties in Lebanon, first of all ‘The March 14 alliance’ led by Saad Hariri, who accuse Syria of involvement in the murder of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (Saad`s father) in 2005 and do not want the Syrian presence in Lebanon, are also opposed to the Syrian government. Meanwhile, some Lebanese parties, first of all Hezbollah, who had opposed the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2006, back Syria as an ally against the Israeli invasion.
As far as Syria and Jordan are concerned, though both countries fought together during all Arab-Israeli wars, the fact that in 1970 Syria sent its troops to Jordan to support the Palestinian military organizations in their attempts to stay in the country despite King Hussein`s protest, resulted in strained relations between Syria and Jordan, and no improvement has been made since then. Notably, Jordan enjoys privileged ties with the US (the American embassy in Amman, the largest in the Middle East, is responsible for the monitoring of the events in the entire region).
The Syrian crisis is being actively affected from abroad. Various reports confirm that there is a plan aimed to divide Syria into several parts, with some areas annexed to Turkey, the Golan Heights going to Israel, and probably separate Kurdish and Druze territorial entities…
There are also some ‘domestic’ reasons for Syrians to be unhappy with their government. The Assad family, who belong to the Alawites, have been ruling the country for more than 40 years. Numerous cases of protectionism and corruption are widely known. At the same time, the BAAS party, its doctrine based on nationalism, Islam and elements of socialism, has always worked much to solve the most pressing social and economic problems. Medical services in Syria are still free, as well as education. Food prices are relatively low, and most people can afford quite comfortable lifestyle. Mass rallies took place in Damascus and in some other places across Syria in late March- June, with tens of thousands of people expressing their support to Bashar Assad.
Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, Syria can boast quite positive social and economic indexes. A report released by the IMF last year said that the GDP in Syria stood at $4.800. Though the unemployment level was quite high- 20% (and 30% among young people), it was still lower than in Tunisia and Egypt (where youth unemployment was 50%). The number of highly-qualified specialists without job is also smaller in Syria than in Egypt and Tunisia. Education levels are also higher in Syria (with 86% literate men above the age of 15, and 73.6% among women). The same holds true for life expectancy and inflation: more than 70 years, and 2 percent.
I’d like to stress that most people in Syria support the ruling regime. Bashar Assad offers a chance to every political faction to join the national dialog. In July-August the Syrian Cabinet approved the election reform, as well as changes to the country’s law on mass media. The decades-old state of emergency was lifted. And more amendments to the Constitution are to come, including the article about the BAAS being the only ruling party in the parliament. Practically all demands of the opposition have been fulfilled. However, radical anti-government protesters reject the reforms and want the regime to be toppled.
What will be the outcome of the confrontation between the Syrian government, supported by the majority of the population, and the radical opposition, backed from abroad? It depends on the level of trust the army and the law-enforcement agencies have in the ruling regime, as well as on the position of the permanent members of the UNSC, Russia included. The Libyan scenario would be the worst thing for Syria.