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Does Syria's Uprising Stand a Chance?

Does Syria's Uprising Stand a Chance?

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Published by Christopher Watt

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Published by: Christopher Watt on Mar 09, 2013
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03/22/2013

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Does Syria
s Uprising Stand a Chance?Christopher WattJuly 7, 2011
The Syrian revolution is unique in the Arab Spring, but the regime is using technology, regional support and itshistory of brutality to fight back.
 Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text 
“God protects Syria.” Photo by
 
.
 One Friday in Damascus, as I was rounding a corner downtown, a white sedan occupied by five men rolled to a stopon Maysaloun Street, near, perhaps incidentally, the local agency of Iranian Air. What looked like an argumentensued inside the car; it was punctuated by a pop; and a body fell out a back door, landing on the sidewalk beforehanging over the curb. Another man stepped from the car and stumbled backward across the sidewalk, clutching his
head in anguish. Blood spreads faster than you think, the dead man’s brain matte
r gathering at the curb in a stream.The other man grabbed the body and restored it to the car before it sped away. The central but deserted site mayhave been chosen with care. In Damascus, just like elsewhere in the Muslim world, Friday is a day of rest and prayer. I was not aware of other witnesses, nor was it clear whether the assailants noticed me. Had the man beenmurdered, or did he himself pull the trigger? A small crowd gathered around the emergency vehicles late to thescene, no one quite sure, it seemed, of what happened.Some years ago I spent two months in Syria, walking across the border from Turkey to Aleppo before arriving in
Damascus. The Iraq war was supposedly just beginning to die down next door, which is to say that “the surge” was
underway and one million Iraqi refugees were living on dwindling resources in neighbourhoods outside Damascus. The regime was endorsing words like 
 and 
 when speaking to foreign investors, whilesimultaneously using the Iraq debacle as evidence against democracy when speaking to the Syrian people. It is
 
 perhaps fair to say that Syria had reached the proverbial “crossroads” of journalistic cliché, never mind that
five-thousand-year-old civilizations generally tend to answer to that description anyway.Today, Syrians are trying to overthrow not just an authoritarian regime but the social pact behind a permanent stateof emergency that is almost fifty years old in Syrian law. The uprising began in the southern town of Daraa. Morethan four hundred have been killed there since the government deployed tanks, snipers and thousands of soldiersagainst the town on March 15, 2011, just days after President Bashar al-Assad officially repealed the emergency lawto appease the mob. Protests spread nevertheless to northern villages and towns around cities like Hama and Homs.The army has largely remained loyal to the regime, Syria analyst Joshua Landis told me in early June, which helpsaccount for differences between Syria and other Arab states, where the old order has recently met opposing force.More recently, soldiers have  begun to defect.  The government crackdown is abetted by Syrian alliances with regional powers such as Iran, a country that hasreportedly supplied the Assad regime with trainers and weapons since the uprising began. If the conflict in Syria becomes a civil war, it may have implications unlike those of other uprisings during the Arab Spring. If NATO does
not “intervene” as it did in Libya, perhaps that’s because— 
according to Western diplomats, intelligence sources andIranian opposition groups quoted in various publications
 —Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recently
landed four cargo planes in Damascus at an IRGC-dedicated operational base.Though the two countries do not
share a land border, Syria in recent years has been Iran’s gateway to the
West.The most entrenched regimes only achieve that state by waging a permanent war of self-repair. In 2007, the morningafter the shooting, I walked to the same corner, but this ti
me on the dead man’s side of the street, the blood now
gone. After the shooting I had taken refuge at a nearby internet café, where the owners
 — 
one imported tuxedos toSaudi Arabia, the other was a metalhead with near-perfect English
 — 
ran a cultural halfway house of sorts for 
travelers and businessmen. A description of the shooting caused them to pause. “That kind of thing doesn’t happenhere,” they said. Syria’s numerous intelligence agencies and police squads were so pervasive— 
at least two hundredthousand
of Syria’s twenty
-one million people were on the take, one source told me
 — 
that random violence was and
 presumably is still rare. Uncannily safe streets were one result of Syrian security’s near 
-total monopoly on force.Cause and effect is rarely clear in s
uch places; what’s known can often never be proven; those who fall are never 
 pushed. It stands to reason that public executions might typically have some state-sanctioned political or economicintent about which it is best not to speculate, or inquire.Much has changed in recent weeks. The military and its affiliates have been accused of killing more than 1,400 Syrians and detaining at least eleven thousand more since January to preserve the sclerotic status quo. The fighting
has been vicious by anyone’s measure, such that Amnesty International labeled a May operation against the town of 
Talkalakha
 The government lost 120 police alone in the town of Jisr al-Shughour,according to unverified Syrian state sources
,while residents disputed government claims that “armed gangs” were
terrorizing the town, saying rather that the army itself was killing deserters.The regime has also created martyrs such as thirteen-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb.A video of al-Khateeb
 — 
who was apparently tortured todeath
 — 
was produced by family upon the return of his corpse and shared by thousands on Youtube and other socialnetworks. Defiance reigns on the traditional day of rest, but 
that’s not all:“Fridays still see the largest number of 
demonstrators, in what ranges between 100 and 200 locations, but more regular, mostly nightly protests, sit-ins andstrikes have also become a regular feature of life in many parts of the coun
try.”
 The Green Revolution in Iran demonstrated an understanding on the part of both protesters and state forces thatmassacres do not play well in the internet age. Technology has transformed the age-old concept of martyrdom. For some it is a freely chosen act of public relations, while others are reborn as a meme. It takes times like these for deaths like Hamza Ali al-
Khateeb’s to become known. Syrian forces
 opened fire on those who took to the street in mourning, killing as many as fifty-four in Hama, according to the Local Coordinating Committee, an oppositionumbrella group, while another thirty-five were gunned down a few days later, according to human rights groups, in
 
two northern towns against the regime. Elsewhere, videos reportedly surfaced showing Syrians waving bannerscondemning countries like Iran and North Korea for siding with the state throughout the bloodshed.These events are not entirely without precedent. The city of Hama has a population of about seven hundred thousand people and is located about four hours north of Damascus. It is famous for waterwheels along the Orontes River anda massacre that took place there in 1982. President Hafez al-Assad
 — 
father of the current leader and once described by Bill Clinton as the smartest Middle Eastern politician
 — 
took issue with the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Araborganisation of Islamists typically from humble backgrounds. At times, the Muslim Brotherhood has been dedicated
to overthrowing the Arab world’s secular, nationalist regimes, and has been blamed, not without reason, for 
inspiring a generation of militants known as al-Qaeda.To bring a six-year insurgency to a conclusion, al-Assad shunted the Muslim Brotherhood into Hama
 — 
the ultimateact of kettling
 — 
and proceeded to level the town with artillery and little regard for the civilian population.Conservative estimates place the number of dead at ten thousand, though Amnesty International says the finalcount may be as high as twenty-five thousand. The massacre prompted New York Times columnist ThomasFriedman to coin a phrase for scorched-earth violence intended to forestall domestic reprisal regardless of international consequence: Hama Rules.In Syria, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood has since been punishable  by death. A general amnesty for prisoners of the current uprising issued by current president Bashar al-Assad in lateMay probably will not change that
:“Amnesty is an effort to do something without providing structural change or resigning,” Landis said,
which is to say that it is not intended to change the past.Foreign reporters have been largely banned from Syria since March. As of early July, Hama was surrounded bygovernment forces again, without water and electricity as residents conduct what by many accounts arestrictly  peaceful protests.Meanwhile, rights groups, diplomats and journalists are meeting former residents of Jisr  al-Shugour and other northern towns across the border, in southern Turkey.  Predictably, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as both tools of opposition and means of following the conflict. InFebruary, a month after the protests began, Syria renewed efforts to restrict access to many websites, includingFacebook. The regime, or at least forces sympathetic to it, has also used social media for offensive purposes. Adetailed analysis of a group called the Syrian Electronic Army was recently published by the Information WarfareMonitor (IWM). The report, entitled The Emergence of Open and Organized Pro-Government Cyber Attacks in theMiddle East: The Case of the Syrian Electronic Army, presents compelling evidence that the Syrian government is behind the 
 on Syrian protesters and Western websites.
Interestingly, we are witnessing more governments using once-vilified social networking and video sharingwebsites as tools to promote their agendas and influence conflicts in the idea-
sphere,” says the report’s author,Helmi Noman, a senior researcher at The Citizen Lab, located at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global
Affairs. American officials have argued that Tehran may be
lending a hand in such attacks. “Iranian
-assistedcomputer surveillance is believed to have led to the arrests of hundreds of Syrians seized from their homes in recent
weeks,” the
 Wall Street Journal reports.Noman responded by email to a question about possible Iranian support on
the cyber front in cautious terms. “So far we have found no evidence,” he wrote, while an
to Noman’s initial
report concluded that the possibility of active collaboration between Iranian and Syria pro-state hackers was low.Perhaps more significantly, in late June President Assad  praised the SEA
in a nationally televised speech: “There isthe electronic army which has been a real army in virtual reality,” Assad said. Despite Assad’s arms
-length turn of  phrase, the SEA is hosted on national networks, a first for pro-government internet armies in the Arab world,the IWM
observes. Using a denial of service software program called “Bunder Fucker 1.0”, the
SEA has targetednews organisations such as Al-Jazeera, BBC News, al-Arabia TV and Orient TV, a UAE-based satellite broadcaster led by Syrian Ammar Qurabi, who is also head of the Egypt-based National Organisation for Human Rights.The SEA has also claimed responsibility, the IWM notes, for defacing websites belonging to the Center for Small

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