2011-04-19 #Syria government passes more meaningless reform, continues killing protesters

ImageThe Syrian government today passed a bill that lifted the country's 48 year old emergency law as well as abolished the state security court for political prisoners and approved a law allowing 'regulated' peaceful protests requiring Interior Ministry permission. In a country with 10,000 political prisoners, walking into the Interior Ministry to obtain permission for a protest does not seem risk free. Neither can a protest be peaceful when Syrian security are firing at it as has been the case in the current protests. There is also a total ban on political gatherings, and the Interior Ministry today called the current protests a mutiny by armed Salafi militants who it promised to 'punish with the strongest penalties.'

The Ministry said it will not be lenient with such terrorist acts and it will work strictly to enhance security and stability all over Syria and pursue terrorists everywhere to bring them to justice.The Ministry called on the citizens to tell about the whereabouts of terrorists and suspects and not allow them to exploit the freedom atmosphere to shed blood and corrupt public and private properties.

Assad's government has so far released political prisoners and detained many more, replaced the government while retaining the Assad family and friends who control all government, military, intelligence and economy, and lifted the emergency law while retaining all of the other laws that allow the Assad government to operate as it pleases, such as guaranteed immunity for crimes committed in the line of duty for the secret police. Protesters were once again unimpressed by the reforms and promised to continue protesting.

2011-04-18 State Dept Spokesman's Newspeak on Whether the US is Undermining the Syria Government

The Washington Post’s coverage of US State Embassy cables that suggest the US has been secretly backing Syrian opposition groups snowballed into a big story today. With the regime gunning down more protesters, senior Obama Administration officials took the opportunity to rehash the talking point that the disclosure of information obtained by WikiLeaks could endanger lives.

Whether the US is working to undermine the Syrian government or not became a key topic for Acting Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark C. Toner, who currently fills this position because PJ Crowley was forced out of the position after being too forthright about his position on alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning.

*Scroll to about the 5:40 mark to watch the exchange on Syria.

Fox News’ James Rosen bluntly asks, “Is the United States Government, through any programs or means, trying to destabilize the Assad regime in Syria?” Rather than answer the question, Toner immediately reacted, “Well, the premise of your question is whether we are engaged in…” Rosen cut him off saying, “There was no premise,” and “it was a flat-out question.”

2011-04-18 Shadowy figures play with real lives in #Syria

ImageImage credit: SkyNews

"We are extremely concerned that lives are endangered as a result of this article based on WikiLeaks," a senior Obama administration official told Fox News Monday morning. "The concern regards what (the) Syrians might do to those that work for (Barada), given that (Assad and his security forces) are prone to crack down and could well use this as an excuse -- blaming it on foreigners."

It is unfortunate that it took a Washington Post article on US involvement in Syria for the US government to feel concern, and that it chose to do so based on the disclosure of their actions rather than the actions. US State cables published by the Washington Post have illustrated reason for concern over US involvement for a very long time, and have also shown that US actions have been known to the Syrian government for a very long time.

Cable 09DAMASCUS306 dated April 28, 2009 states: "The SARG would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change. This would inevitably include the various expatriate reform organizations operating in Europe and the U.S., most of which have little to no effect on civil society or human rights in Syria."

As related in cable 09DAMASCUS477 dated July 8, 2009, it did not take the publication of the US State cables for the Syrian government to become aware of US activity. "... report begs the question of how much and for how long SARG has known about Democracy Council operations in Syria and, by extension, the MJD's participation. Reporting in other channels suggest the Syrian Muhubarat may already have penetrated the MJD and is using MJD contacts to track U.S. democracy programming. If the SARG does know, but has chosen not to intervene openly, it raises the possibility that the SARG may be mounting a campaign to entrap democracy activists receiving illegal (under Syrian law) foreign assistance."

2011-04-09 Syrian security fires on mourners at mass funeral, UN Secretary-General is greatly disturbed #Syria [Updated]

Update: Six Syrian human rights groups, including the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights, the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights and the Defence Committee for Democratic Freedom and Human Rights., released a joint statement saying twenty-six people were killed in Dara'a yesterday at the funerals of protesters killed the day before, and two more were shot dead in Homs yesterday. There are also many reports of people detained and missing.

Probably the best collection of youtube videos of the protests, organized by city, here.

Mass funerals were held in Syria today for the protesters killed yesterday, now reported as 37 by the National Organisation for Human Rights. In Dara'a, security forces fired on the mourners as thousands assembled near the old Omari mosque where six people were killed on March 22 and where the most violence has resulted since.

The UN Secretary-General's office has posted notes from a conversation he had today with President Bashar al Assad of Syria.

  • The Secretary-General said he was greatly disturbed by the latest reports of violence against protesters and concerned about the reports of the number of people killed and injured on Friday.
  • He said the killing of peaceful demonstrators was unacceptable and should be investigated. He took note of the President''s intention to investigate and encouraged early action in this regard.
  • He also noted there were reports that demonstrators had used violence and killed security personnel.
  • The Secretary-General underlined that violence from any side was deplorable.
  • The Secretary-General reiterated the duty of governments to protect civilians and respect the rights and freedoms of the population including the right of free speech and peaceful assembly. He said he also expected demonstrators to be peaceful.
  • The Secretary-General urged the release of detained demonstrators as soon as possible. He took note of President Assad''s announced reforms and said he was convinced that there was no alternative to an immediate and inclusive dialogue on comprehensive reforms.

2011-04-08 Another bloody Friday in #Syria [Updated]

ImageBashar al-Assad (right) with his brother Maher al-Assad (left) and brother-in-law Assef Shawkat (center) in 2000.

Update:Syrian state TV has aired footage of masked gunmen firing on protesters and police. There are many similar videos in different situations on the internet, and different ideas of who the snipers are, Syrian security forces, protesters, or outside forces.

Today protesters in Dara'a destroyed a statue of president Bashar al-Assad's older brother Basil al-Assad and reportedly burnt down the State TV building in Dara'a and set fire to a Baath Party outpost. Al Jazeera's correspondent Cal Perry reports that the army has now been deployed in large numbers to Dara'a. The government's earlier decision to arm the police force with electric batons instead of live ammunition was reversed today.

Syrian state TV (translated by Al Jazeera) said repeatedly today: Over the past Fridays there were a lot of demonstrations in which armed groups used weapons to kill people and security forces - and though we understand that protesting is a right of the population, we can no longer allow chaos to take place and official buildings to be destroyed. So we will use all the means to stop the chaos from taking place.

Protesters are calling for people to come out tonight in great numbers in other cities to take the pressure off of Dara'a.

Video of snipers from AP

2011-03-31 Maher al-Assad and the family business #Syria

ImageReuters reports that Syria will set up an investigation into the protest deaths, as well as form a committee to "solve the problem of the 1962 census" during which 150,000 Syrian Kurds were denied nationality. It is doubtful that an investigation will be regarded as hopeful by protesters who blame the violence on Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian president, one of his closest advisors and head of the Republican Guard.

While Bashar al-Assad is the public face of Syrian governance, his brother is in charge of the security forces that provide Syria with one of the worst human rights and press freedoms records in the world. One of the many things he is commonly

2011-03-30 Assad's speech days late, no reforms, more attacks on protesters #Syria

Continuing his customary practice of promises unfulfilled, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad delivered a speech today that was expected days ago and delivered none of the hoped for concessions to protesters. The speech is here, English transcript is here.

Reports online are that after the speech a peaceful protest in Latakia was fired upon. A general commanded that the protesters be shot at. The army would not leave the civilians, they dragged away the bodies of the killed. I saw with my own eyes the bullet shells, I took and kept two in my bag as evidence. They said the security forces shot with automatic weapons. They said the bullets and weapons were Kalashnikovs. Very graphic video reportedly of today's violence has been posted here. An Al Jazeera report from Syria paints a chilling prelude scene before their reporter was turned away. The reporter found a colonel looking down a long range rifle scope at a checkpoint set up with a view of the future protest scene, while everyone was still listening to Assad's speech and the street was empty.

A list is being maintained of people imprisoned, missing and killed since the protests began. This very valuable work shows the name, date, occasionally picture, age, location, circumstance and source for each incident. The total number on the list is now at 275.

After Assad's speech, Syrian state TV showed footage of Assad in Damascus, the site of yesterday's hugely supportive rallies for him, only this time his army of security appeared breached by a rush from the crowd before the TV cut away. Report from News Tsar below.

2011-03-29 Syrian government resigns, president Bashar al-Assad stays

There are many online reports again that say Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will address the country tomorrow, and that he will make an announcement "that will please the Syrian people". In the meantime, he has accepted the resignation of the Syrian government, the latest in a series of reforms this week which do not include the protesters' demands of an end to the 48 year old emergency law, a drastic reduction of domestic security powers, freedom for all political prisoners and a disclosure of the fate of tens of thousands of protesters who disappeared in the 1980's. The Syrian government do not possess much power, most still resides with Assad, his family, and the vicious and powerful security forces. The resigning premier has been appointed by Assad as caretaker prime minister and a new government is expected to be appointed by Assad within 24 hours.

Daraa and Lattakia are still having huge protests against the government, while in Damascus Al Jazeera is showing large crowds (variously described in the same article and embedded video as thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and "perhaps even millions") waving flags and posters in support of Assad. As reported by France24, schoolchildren and government workers were given time off to attend the pro Assad rally. Russia Today has a good video which shows first the huge pro-Assad rally in Damascus which all the major news media not yet evicted from the country were brought to watch, and second the very different and violent protests happening in other regions.

2011-03-27 Secret police, special forces and now the army defend Assad's rule in #Syria

President Bashar al-Assad deployed the army in Latakia today. Until now secret police and special forces have been primarily responsible for quelling the protests this week and killing a large number of protesters, at least 61 according to Human Rights Watch. Exact numbers have been difficult to obtain because of the news blackout imposed in the country, but SANA is reporting 12 killed yesterday in Latakia. Unofficial reports are much higher, but the international news media is being prevented from reporting.

Reuters is reporting two television journalists missing in Syria since Saturday, after "On Friday, Syrian authorities withdrew the accreditation of Reuters text correspondent Khaled Yacoub Oweis, saying he had filed "unprofessional and false" coverage of events in Syria." Al Jazeera had their Sana'a bureau raided on March 22 after an earlier expulsion of two Al-Jazeera correspondents and six other international journalists.

Relative calm is being reported today despite a sit in at the Omari Mosque in Deraa where at least six people were killed on the 23rd. Government officials announced Assad was to make a televised address today, but he has not appeared.

2011-03-23 Syria: At least 4 more dead in 'armed gang' ambulance attack

ImageAs many as 10 protesters have been killed in Syrian rallies that officially began on March 15. The latest attack by Syrian security forces took place Wednesday just after midnight at the Omari mosque in Demaa.

The Associated Press reports that an ambulance was attacked by an "armed gang" in this incident, which was initially aired on Syria's state-run TV. Fatalities include a paramedic, a driver, a policeman and Dr. Ali Ghassab al-Mahamid, who traveled to the mosque in order to attend to victims of similar recent attacks.

In Damascus, a group of several dozen plain-clothes Syrian policemen broke up a protest at the Omayyed Mosque on March 21. Security forces reportedly pulled out batons the moment chants broke out and detained at least two activists. At least one activist was beaten for resisting. Many women and children fled the scene as at least 200 protesters gathered, “chanting support for President Bashar al-Assad and waving Syrian flags.”

2011-03-15 #Syria protests #Mar15 in #Damascus & #Aleppo

ImageSyria's day of rage was originally scheduled for February 5, but no protesters showed up. On February 15, we reported the arrest of a teen blogger and speculated that the patience of the Syrian people which president Bashar al-Assad was assured would protect his country from protests may soon wear thin. On February 18, we asked, Did Syria run out of patience? as a protest broke out over the beating of a man by police. Since then it has become clear that Syrians have reached a slow boil. This time, on the announced protest day of March 15, Syria was unmistakeably in the streets of Damascus and Aleppo. The facebook page has announced another protest tomorrow, beginning at 12 noon, in all Syrian cities. Reuters announced 40 protesters, but the videos below show far more.

From our previous coverage there are some reasons why the protests are necessary, for more graphic reasons see the last video below. Approximately 10,000 political prisoners are currently being held in Syrian jails. A national state of emergency has been in effect in Syria continuously since 1963 and it is consistently used to suppress and punish any dissent. According to Amnesty International's report on Syria for 2010, "Critics, human rights defenders, alleged opponents of the government and others were detained, often for prolonged periods; some were sentenced to prison terms after unfair trials. Torture and other ill-treatment remained common, and were committed with impunity; there were several suspicious deaths in custody. The government failed to clarify the circumstances in which [17 prisoners and five others] were killed at Sednaya Military Prison in 2008 and, again, took no steps to account for thousands of victims of enforced disappearances in previous years. Women faced legal and other discrimination and violence. The Kurdish minority remained subject to discrimination, and thousands of Syrian Kurds were effectively stateless. At least eight prisoners were executed."

2011-02-18 Did #Syria run out of patience?

Update: All4Syria and Al Arabiya report that it was Syrian traffic police who beat up Imad Nasab, son of a shopowner in Hariqa, as stated on an opposition website on Friday. The 200 protesters blocked traffic for three hours until the interior minister came to the scene and arrested the policemen involved.

WL Central speculated three days ago, on the occasion of a Syrian court sentencing a teen blogger to five years in prison, that the patience Syrian president Bashar al-Assad so admired in his fellow citizens may soon wear thin. Assad escaped a scheduled day of rage on February 5, but today an extraordinary number of people objected to Syrian police beating Syrian citizen Emad Nasab.

2011-02-15 Syria and teen blogger Tal al-Mallouhi!/SirkkuAsheesh/status/37740988084523008

Tal al-Mallouhi was arrested in Syria in December 2009, and yesterday, at 20 years old, was sentenced to five years in prison for spying, an action condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists. She had written blog articles saying she wished to play a role in shaping the future of Syria, and asking US president Barack Obama to do more to support Palestine. She was charged with "revealing information that should remain hushed to a foreign country". An official told Al Jazeera she "deserved 15 years in prison but her sentence was commuted considering her age".

PJ Crowley, of the US state department, "sharply criticized" Syria's handling of this case. Obama recently interfered in a similar case in Yemen, that time demanding that a Yemeni journalist remain in prison for reporting the truth about a US attack in Yemen that killed 55 civilians.

2011-02-14 Omar Suleiman and Canadian complicity in torture

Ahmad Abou El Maati is one of four Canadian citizens of dual nationality who became loosely linked together, incidentally and accidentally, by botched police and intelligence investigations in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the US.* All four were either apprehended in or kidnapped and transferred to Syria, where they were tortured.** Because El Maati’s country of origin was Egypt (born in Kuwait to an Egyptian father), he alone was transferred from Syria to Egypt months after he was detained, and survived another two years of torture in a succession of Egyptian prisons.

These four cases have received decisive if not finished judicial investigation in Canada. The first and best-known of the four, the case of Maher Arar, was the subject of Justice Dennis O’Connor’s inquiry in 2004-06, which led to an official apology to Mr Arar from the Canadian government and compensation of $10 million. Although the O’Connor inquiry was able to investigate the behaviour of Canadian agents and officials thoroughly, it remains unfinished because the governments of the United States, Jordan, and Syria refused to co-operate with the inquiry.

2011-02-10 US, Syria Propaganda War Over Syrian Nuclear Investigation and Diplomatic Relations

Cables released by WikiLeaks on Syria show a State Department eager to repair relations with Syria, which were in extreme ruin when the Bush Administration left power. They show the US government was eager to double their efforts at targeting Syria’s interest in developing nuclear capabilities.

The cable 09DAMASCUS142 from February 19, 2009, shows US officials wanted to find a way to break through Syrian media, which is tightly controlled by the government, and get its own propaganda into the country so Syrians could hear what the US considered to be the truth on US-Syria relations.

Officials were concerned that “savvy journalists” had become “adept at self-censorship.” And, thus, the truth about Syria’s nuclear activities was not being reported:

2011-02-08 Syria unblocks social media

ImageSyria is reportedly set to unblock facebook, youtube and twitter today. Syria’s state-owned fixed line operator ISP, the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) requested its licensed distributors to permit access. Syrian censorship of the internet has been seen as among the worst in the world, and it has targeted social media in particular. The relaxing of access appears to be a part of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's commitment to progress and communication with the Syrian people.

As reviewed earlier on WL Central, that commitment has been primarily verbal in a country that has a long way to go to meet standards requested by such authorities as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Syria escaped a scheduled protest on February 5 through a combination of suppression, threats and bribes to the Syrian people, and it was hoped at that point that the promised reforms would be substantial enough to reward the Syrian people's restraint. In a country with a reported 10,000 political prisoners, where bloggers are routinely jailed, tortured, and 'disappeared', more substantial reforms are required.

2011-02-07 Egypt’s new VP Omar Suleiman: willing to serve Israel

Egyptian VP Omar SuleimanThe Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten has published a set of cables that shed light on Omar Suleiman’s willingness to serve the interests of Israel. The man recently appointed as vice-president of Egypt, according to a cable from 2005, was willing to help former head of security in the Israeli Defense Ministry Amos Gilad by guaranteeing there would be no democratic elections in Gaza in 2006. He was also willing to help Israel better manage the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Cables released also reveal that a key motive for opposing Hamas was a fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would be emboldened. 05TELAVIV5864 details a meeting that Gilad wanted kept secret. Gilad talked about his fear of the Palestinian uprising movement Hamas, which was expected to get a large amount of the vote in the democratic elections in January 2006. Gilad was afraid that Hamas would win the election and that a Hamas win would "destroy everything."

2011-02-06 Syria and the Day of Rage that didn't happen

ImageAs predicted, Syria's day of rage did not meet with the same response as that of others in the region. "The only rage in Syria yesterday was the rage of nature," wrote Syrian journalist Ziad Haidar, in reference to a cold spell and heavy rain on the day of the protest. While the facebook group promoting the day of rage attracted many followers, there were several key differences separating Syria from Egypt or Tunisia. Facebook is banned in Syria, and the page was reportedly set up by expatriates. Although it gained 15,000 followers by Friday, most were also believed to be non-resident. The Syrian government has been extremely vigilant about quelling opposition to the forty year government of president Bashar al-Assad and his father. The country has an anti-US, anti-Israel foreign policy that is popular at home and Assad is also seen to be slightly more open to change than others in the region.

Approximately 10,000 political prisoners are currently being held in Syrian jails. A national state of emergency has been in effect in Syria continuously since 1963 and it is consistently used to suppress and punish any dissent. According to Amnesty International's report on Syria for 2010, "Critics, human rights defenders, alleged opponents of the government and others were detained, often for prolonged periods; some were sentenced to prison terms after unfair trials. Torture and other ill-treatment remained common, and were committed with impunity; there were several suspicious deaths in custody. The government failed to clarify the circumstances in which [17 prisoners and five others] were killed at Sednaya Military Prison in 2008 and, again, took no steps to account for thousands of victims of enforced disappearances in previous years. Women faced legal and other discrimination and violence. The Kurdish minority remained subject to discrimination, and thousands of Syrian Kurds were effectively stateless. At least eight prisoners were executed."

2011-02-05 WikiLeaks cables on Amr Moussa as possible successor to Mubarak [UPDATE:1]

Amidst reports from newspapers like the Telegraph that secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, might be someone who takes over for President Hosni Mubarak, it seems worthwhile to look at what released WikiLeaks cables reveal about the US perception of Moussa. The US has close ties with Egypt and gives much military aid to Egypt. Although the people in Egypt revolting against Mubarak have the upper hand right now, any leader appointed to lead Egypt would likely have some support from the US.

At least since 2006, the issue of who would succeed Mubarak has been a foremost issue for the US. And, as indicated by 09CAIRO874, the US has noted Moussa could be a possible candidate for taking over the presidency:

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