By William Fisher
As Syria teetered on the brink of civil war, the Canadian computer programmer who gained fame by being “rendered” to Syria by the United States, and being jailed and tortured there for a year, is charging that Syrian President Basher al-Assad is “committing political suicide” by the cruel and inhuman methods he is employing to quell anti-government protests in his country,
Maher Arar, who was spirited away from Kennedy International Airport in a case of mistaken identity for which the US has refused to apologize, was released after a year by the Syrians with no charges against him. Arar, A Canadian citizen born in Syria, wrote in an article in Prism, an online journal he founded last year:
“I believe [al-Assad] has committed so many mistakes the most serious of which is his unwillingness to understand that the continued use of state propaganda against the protesters (by accusing them of being Israeli infiltrators) in order to justify the use of lethal force against them is a tactic that does not work any more in this 21st century.”
He added that Assad is living “in a state of denial.” Assad’s “other big mistake is his total reliance on the security and intelligence people who seem to have always influenced his political decisions over the last 11 years,” Arar said.
Meanwhile, human rights groups are demanding that Deraa, the war-torn Southern city where Assad unleashed his military on civilian citizens, be allowed to receive aid. They say there are acute shortages of medical supplies, food and water.
An estimated 500 peaceful demonstraters have been killed and thousands wounded by Syrian army soldiers.
Nadim Houry, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told the Guardian newspaper, "The siege should be lifted, food allowed in, and communications reinstated."
HRW said on April 25, Syrian security troops raided Daraa and shot citizens indiscriminately, leading to the deaths of dozens of civilians, according to news agencies and witnesses. Authorities were aiming to suppress peaceful protests demanding political reforms that started in mid-March.
In later developments, HRW reported that hundreds of Syrian troops stormed the Damascus suburb of Saqba overnight - breaking into houses and arresting about 300 people, witnesses say.
Tanks and troops are also reported to have been sent to other trouble spots, amid fresh reports of anti-government demonstrations in Homs and Hama.The moves came despite appeals from the UN and US for President Bashar al-Assad to end the violence against protesters.
Activists, meanwhile, were vowing to stage a "Day of Defiance" on Friday.
More than 500 Syrians are thought to have been killed since the protests started seven weeks ago.
At least 2,500 others have been detained, although rights groups say the figure could be much higher.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is reporting that “The images coming out of Syria are desperate and distressing. A video that we're pretty sure is from Deraa shows nothing short of a massacre - dozens of people killed in the streets, people shot through the head, others bleeding to death on the ground.”
The BBC says “they appear to be mostly young and unarmed people who took part a few weeks ago in nothing more than a protest for change.
The few people managing to get out of Syria and across the border into Jordan are very frightened and wary of speaking out. But one man who came out this morning told me three members of his own family had been killed.
He says the army is now in Deraa literally washing away the blood from the streets. This is in anticipation of a visit by a UN human rights delegation in the next few days.”
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) said Syrian authorities imposed complete siege on the city including a media blackout.
“The Syrian authorities bear sole responsibility for the safety of journalists. Authorities have to immediately declare reasons and places of their detention. Authorities are responsible for their disappearance and have to respond to allegations that the journalists were abducted” by government operatives,” the organization said.
The siege on the city has been the most brutal element of a vicious campaign to crush dissent that has led to widespread international condemnation. The Red Cross on Tuesday called on Syria to allow its health workers safe access to people injured in bloody protests and let it visit those who have been arrested.
"We need to have larger access, especially in the south, and here I talk about Deraa," ICRC spokesman Hisham Hassan told a news briefing in Geneva.
The Guardian newspaper reports, “There is growing evidence of a humanitarian crisis in the city. No one has been allowed in and reports trickling out paint a devastating picture of a population suffering from a lack of medical supplies, food and water. Communications are still cut off. Few agencies are licensed to work in Syria and those who are have specific remits to work with Iraqi refugees, who fled in the wake of the US war on Iraq.”
Meanwhile, according to the Guardian, some activists expressed concerns that protests could fizzle out as Syrians, “who have braved security services' gunfire, fear becoming one of thousands being rounded up.” But other observers are saying that the Syrians “have lost their fear of fear” and are determined to remain in the streets despite the all-too-real possibility that they will be killed or wounded.
The Guardian quoted the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying that hundreds had been charged with "maligning the prestige of the state", which carries a three-year sentence.
"I would rather be killed than be locked up and tortured," said one young man in the capital, echoing many others. "We know what happens to people inside."
Amnesty International, which has not been allowed access to Syria, has revealed details of detainees who said they were beaten with batons and cables and subjected to harsh conditions. One said that after being stripped and beaten he was made to lick his blood off the floor.
Diplomats and some opposition figures continue to urge the government to undertake national dialogue. Over the past few weeks, Assad has met with local delegations, and reportedly reached out to some national figures.
But Syrian observers said such efforts were a farce: "They have quashed the opposition and thrown intellectuals into jail," said Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian dissident in Dubai. Opposition figures and activists still at large told the Guardian they would not consider meetings until the violence stopped.
That did not seem imminent as witnesses said tanks were seen heading for areas around Homs central Syria.
Homs is the largest city in Syria to experience persistant protests calling for the end of Assad's 11-year rule, while 17 were shot dead in nearby Rastan on Friday.
A witness told Reuters he had seen 30 tanks and at least 60 trucks filled with soldiers, days after an eyewitness described to the Guardian the area around Rastan as looking like a "war zone".
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information has denounced what it says is a “trend of journalists disappearing in Syria in mysterious circumstances.”
Dorothy Parvaz , a journalist working for channel alJazeera disappeared last Friday and all and communications with her failed after her arrival at Damascus airport. The Algerian journalist, Khalid Si Mohand, who is stationed in Damascus and works for Radio France International, also disappeared April 9 in mysterious circumstances.
According to alJazeera, Ms. Parvaz, 39, who holds American, Canadian and Iranian passports, went to Damascus on Friday to join the channel crew and to participate in the coverage of the events of peaceful protests in Syria. But contact with her was lost after leaving the plane at Damascus International Airport. So far there has been no information on her whereabouts, her condition, the reasons for her disappearance, or her fate.
Despite the lack of information about these journalists, the Arabic Network believes that the Syrian authorities are mainly responsible, especially as it is the only power in Syria, which is “trying to impose media blackout on events to hide the suppression to public freedoms and the brutal assaults against the Syrian citizens for using their right to peaceful protest to demand democratic reforms in the country.”
Another well-respected human rights organization, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, is gravely concerned about the Syrian authorities’ continued insistence on using excessive force to break up ongoing peaceful protests demanding the right to dignity and democratic freedoms.
CIHRS believes that the repressive security approach undertaken by the Syrian regime “once again proves the utter lack of genuine will to engage in serious reform and exposes the falsity of recent official promises of reform meant to circumvent Syrians’ democratic entitlements and absorb the anger at home and abroad following the brutal crackdown that left at least 123 people dead. Most of the victims died in peaceful protests that have taken place since the second half of March, starting first in Deraa and spreading to several other Syrian provinces.”
The group noted that Syrian President al-Assad admitted a few days ago that reform had been too long delayed in Syria and that the country might face destructive dangers if it did not embark on reform. However, “these exalted phrases found their practical application in further violence against peaceful protests called for by forces demanding democratic freedoms, which has led to the death of an additional 100 people in the first half of April,” the group said, adding that most of the victims were killed in demonstrations in Latakia, Deir al-Zor, Damascus, Baniyas, in addition to Deraa.
While the official media and presidential aides reported that a decision had been made to lift the state of emergency that has been in force in Syria since 1963, President al-Assad quickly dispelled this notion. Instead, he seems to be following in the footsteps of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak by issuing orders to draft a new counterterrorism law to replace the emergency law.
“The practices of the Syrian authorities clearly show that the Baath regime is incapable of learning the lesson from the revolutionary uprisings in the Arab region, which have thus far led to the downfall of two of the most recalcitrant examples of police rule in the Arab world - Egypt and Tunisia - and which are shaking the thrones of tyrants in Libya and Yemen,” the CIHRS said.
It further warned that continued repression and deception by the Syrian regime to avoid addressing demands for reform and democracy “threaten to throw the country into an intractable spiral of violence.”
The group is calling on the UN Human Rights Council to convene a Special Session to discuss the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria and consider measures to end the abuses of the Syrian authorities.
CIHRS stresses that “saving the country from violence and avoiding the Libyan or Yemeni scenario of armed conflict, which threatens wide-scale civil war, require the Syrian regime to exercise the utmost responsibility toward its people and to immediately adopt serious, far-reaching measures that respond to the aspirations and sacrifices made by Syrians to achieve democracy.”
At the end of April, Pres. Barrack Obama signed an Executive Order imposing sanctions against Syrian officials and others. He said, “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators. This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now. We regret the loss of life and our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the victims, and with the Syrian people in this challenging time.”
Obama went on to say, “The Syrian Government’s moves yesterday to repeal Syria’s decades-old Emergency Law and allow for peaceful demonstrations were not serious given the continued violent repression against protesters today.
“Over the course of two months since protests in Syria began, the United States has repeatedly encouraged President Assad and the Syrian Government to implement meaningful reforms, but they refuse to respect the rights of the Syrian people or be responsive to their aspirations.
“The Syrian people have called for the freedoms that all individuals around the world should enjoy: freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and the ability to freely choose their leaders.
“President Assad and the Syrian authorities have repeatedly rejected their calls and chosen the path of repression. They have placed their personal interests ahead of the interests of the Syrian people, resorting to the use of force and outrageous human rights abuses to compound the already oppressive security measures in place before these demonstrations erupted.
“Instead of listening to their own people, President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria’s citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies. We call on President Assad to change course now, and heed the calls of his own people.
“We strongly oppose the Syrian government’s treatment of its citizens and we continue to oppose its continued destabilizing behavior more generally, including support for terrorism and terrorist groups. The United States will continue to stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve, in Syria and around the world.”
Though Syrian demonstrators would no doubt have welcomed Obama’s message much earlier, this would seem out of character with the step-by-step carefully calibrated messages the President and his top people have been delivering since it became apparent that The Arab Spring wasn’t going away any time soon.
The US had no overarching national interest in Tunisia; ergo, the message welcoming the overthrow of that country’s ruler of 30 years came relatively quickly. Egypt was seen as a loyal and effective ally for many years; it had its own peace treaty with Israel and had been helpful in brokering agreements between Hamas and Fatah. So it appeared to some to be taking forever for the president to, as they say, throw Mr. Mubarak under the bus – albeit that the Saudis are miffed because they think Obama did this much too soon.
And it is largely out of deference to the Saudis – suppliers of 12 per cent of our oil – that the US has not spoken out more forcefully against the brutal repression of Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority by the Sunni minority headed by the king and the royal family. In Yemen, where the US has a vital national interest in the form of AlQaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the US has helped broker a deal for the current president to step down.
But the Syrian situation is every bit as complex as any of the other Arab Spring sites. Mostly Sunni Syria has reached out to mostly Shi’ite Iran to arm Hamas and Hizbollah. Syria sits dangerously close to Israel and the two countries have been mortal enemies for years. And Syria exerts enormous influence in Lebanon, sitting on Israel’s northern border.
So one might have expected Obama to walk as gingerly among the Syrians as among, say, the Egyptians or the Bahrainis. Better the devil you know, would have been the reasoning.
That he didn’t – that he couldn’t – so reason is a work of self-destruction by Mr. Assad. Even in this time when the US is learning again how to balance the national interest with realpolitik, the unspeakable brutality, the total blindness, of some nations – no matter how influential – reaches a point where silence is no longer an option..
I’m happy we have reached that point with Syria. I wish we could summon the courage to do the same with Bahrain.