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May 17, 2011

Syria: The crisis continues

Bassel Oudat

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(Damascus) It seems that the Syrian authorities still believe that a security based solution offers the best chance of ending the wave of protests that has hit the country over the past two months, becoming apparent when tanks raided other Syrian towns and cities besides Daraa in the south, which throughout has been the cradle of the protests.

Force is being used against demonstrators throughout the country, and the number of detainees continues to rise, reaching some 10,000 since the protests began.

On Monday, the Syrian army stormed the coastal city of Banyas 280km northwest of the capital Damascus, as well as the towns of Al-Maadimya and Duma, the districts of Hems in central Syria, the suburbs of Daraa, including Jassem, Enkhel and others, and for the first time districts inside Damascus itself in the area of Barza.

Residents in Hems heard explosions close to the city, and Syrian human rights monitors reported that water, electricity and communications had been cut off in areas the army had entered. The military, accompanied by security forces, searched homes and arrested a large number of people, including those who had led the protests such as Sheikh Anas Ayrut, whom Syrian authorities described as being the "emir of the Salafist group" in the city.

Syrian human rights organisations have reported that the army has converted the football stadium and some schools in Banyas and Daraa into massive prisons for hundreds of detainees. They say that the security forces have arrested 400 people in Banyas, and the Syrian Human Rights Committee, an NGO, estimates that the number of protesters killed since the beginning of this month now stands at 827.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Human Rights Organisation has put the number of detainees and missing persons at more than 10,000, with an average of 500 arrests taking place daily.

Also on Monday, a UN spokesman said that a UN commission to evaluate humanitarian conditions in the city had been unable to enter Daraa, though Syria had previously agreed to allow the delegation into the city.

While there was no official response, eyewitnesses said that military force was still being deployed in the city and used to maintain security barricades, despite claims five days ago that the army was withdrawing. Meanwhile, communication with the city continues to be blocked, and the foreign media is being prevented from covering developments.

Syria's official media has said that the army is carrying out "a surgical operation" in Daraa, Banyas, Hems and other locations, asserting that armed protesters "are using civilians as human shields" and that some members of the army had been killed. The official media has not reported civilian deaths at the hands of the security forces.

Domestic and foreign pressure is mounting on the regime to change its policies, and at home protests continue to spread despite the oppressive measures. The slogans used by the protesters are also becoming more daring, with demands to overthrow the regime being heard during demonstrations. At the onset of the protests this was not a conspicuous demand.

After recent US actions to renew the sanctions against Syria and penalise Syrian security officials, including the brother of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the EU announced a list of 13 Syrian officials last Tuesday who would be targeted by sanctions. Those on the list included Maher Al-Assad, brother of the president and head of the country's Republican Guard, businessman Ramy Makhlouf, a cousin of Al-Assad, and officials in charge of the security and intelligence agencies.

The EU sanctions included an asset freeze and a travel ban on those targeted travelling to Europe. The sanctions also imposed an immediate ban on arms sales to the country. However, the sanctions did not target President Al-Assad himself, diplomatic sources suggesting that his name may be added at a later date if the regime does not end the violence.

Analysts believe that the failure to include Al-Assad's name on the EU list reflects divisions within the EU regarding the effectiveness of imposing sanctions on Damascus.

This is the first time that Europe has imposed sanctions on Syria, and they are probably more significant than those imposed by the US since Syria's economic ties with the US are modest in comparison to those with Europe. Syrian officials also generally do not have accounts at US banks.

Meanwhile, Syria's strategic relationship with Turkey has been disintegrating, and Ankara's ties with Damascus have met the fate as those that earlier affected ties between Qatar and Damascus. Syria may also come under increasing pressure from other Arab states.

However, despite repeated calls to halt the repression by the security forces and to find a political solution to the crisis by opening a period of national dialogue that would include representatives of all the country's political forces, the regime has thus far ignored such calls, preferring to use force against the protesters.

The Al-Assad regime seems unconvinced that the country is in fact going through a period of crisis, and it has not formulated a programme of reforms. Even the reforms announced some weeks ago have not yet been implemented.

"The Syrian regime has not and will not state its willingness to participate in a national dialogue to end the crisis," Burhan Ghalioun, director of the Centre for Contemporary Oriental Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"Its use of unprecedented repressive measures against the protesters, including putting cities under siege and withholding medicine, food, water, electricity and communications from them, as well as using live ammunition against protesters and carrying out hundreds of arrests, can only further block the road to dialogue and highlight the regime's determination to crush the democratic movement."

"The regime wants to put an end to the protest movement at any cost, in order to impose whatever type of reform it wishes to later on. These will be superficial reforms that do not encroach on the power of the president or the control exercised by the security agencies over the country," he said.

In her first statement for a month, Syrian presidential adviser Bothayna Shaaban told the New York Times recently that in her view the worst of the crisis in the country was over. "I believe we are at the end of story," Shaaban said, adding that she had held talks with several opposition figures, indicating the regime's willingness to introduce a free press, political parties and a new election law.

"We will expand the dialogue in a week or so," Shaaban said, adding that the protesters were "a mixture of extremists, fundamentalists, smugglers and former convicts".

Some analysts believe that any willingness there is on the part of the Syrian regime to begin dialogue with the opposition comes as a result of foreign as well as domestic pressure. However, opposition sources deny that dialogue is in fact taking place, stating that they have "a long list of conditions" that the regime must meet before they are willing to participate in dialogue with the authorities.

At the top of this list is an end to the violence, the withdrawal of the military from Syrian cities and the release of political prisoners, most of whom are demonstrators, before the preparation of a national conference that would not exclude any elements of Syrian society. The opposition has little faith that any of these conditions will be met any time soon.

Observers believe that neither the regime nor the opposition has a clear solution in mind to the current crisis. However, the Syrian regime appears to believe that its strategy of snuffing out the protests is beginning to bear fruit. Each side believes that it is pursuing the correct strategy, with the result that the crisis continues to appear unsolvable.

Al-Ahram Weekly.

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