The Baath regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad showed its increasing desperation on Sunday when it had fighter jets bombard the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, killing some 36 people (some of them non-combatants). The regime bombed this area because the revolutionaries are using it as a base from which to attack the Muleiha air base, the last major military installation to the east of Damascus that hasn’t already fallen into rebel hands. In the past month, the revolutionaries have concentrated on taking military bases, especially ones with airfields, in hopes of cutting the regime off from resupply by Russia and Iran.
On Friday, revolutionaries announced that they had captured the key Taftanaz air base in the north of the country. Some alarums were raised, however, in that the best fighters, and the ones who took the lead, at Taftanaz are said to be Jibhat al-Nusra (The Succor Front), an extremist Sunni guerrilla group.
The USG Open Source Center translates broadcasts from Arabic satellite television concerning the speech on Sunday of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in which he again dismissed his opposition as terrorists and blamed outside hands at the same time as he called for a vague political process. The revolutionaries were scathing in their responses.
Pan-Arab TVs Al-Jazirah, Al-Arabiyah Air Reaction to Al-Asad Speech, Initiative
Monday, January 7, 2013
Document Type: OSC Summary …
Al-Arabiyah, within its 1300 GMT newscast
, carries excerpts of the Syrian president’s speech and interviews with the following people to comment on these excerpts:
Brigadier Salim Idris, chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), by telephone from the Syrian-Turkish border,
and Saudi media man Jamal Khashuqji, via satellite from Jeddah
– by anchorwoman Suhayr al-Qaysi.
Al-Qaysi states that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad described the rebels in his speech as terrorists, and she asks Idris to comment.
Idris says: “Actually, this man read what had been written for him. We are not terrorists. He is the leader of the criminal and terrorist gang in Syria, who came to address the Syrians today, while he is the one who has been killing them.”
He adds: “He repeated today what he said in his first speech, that is, he leveled pre-arranged accusations against the rebels of being terrorists coming from abroad.” He says: This man does not see what is taking place around him.
Idris asks, then, if all the Syrian people are terrorists.
He adds: “I wonder how this man continues to level such accusations while he has been setting the entire country on fire, as witnessed by the world’s TV channels and media outlets as well as the international community, which has been watching without taking any action.”
Asked to explain how he can say that the international community is only watching at a time when Al-Asad has been claiming that the rebels are supported from abroad, Idris says: “This is not true. His claim is based on the fact that he does not want to admit that the Syrian people, after 40 years of the Al-Asad family’s rule, staged peaceful demonstrations to demand reforms, which were confronted by his murderous security gangs and shabbihah (pro-regime militia) who opened fire on the people, killed them, and set their houses on fire.”
He adds: “Al-Asad claimed that the revolution lacks intellectuals and leaders, as if he is one of the brightest intellectuals. We have not noticed any thought from him other than the mentality of killing and slaughtering.”
He reiterates his view that he brought sectarian gangsters from Iran to slaughter the Syrian people. He wonders: “Why did he and his father remain in power for 40 years? Does Syria lack anybody else capable of replacing them? He and his regime do not admit this fact. He is a tyrant like all other tyrants.”
Asked whether this speech is similar to the speeches made by the leaders of other countries prior to their fall, Idris expresses hope that Al-Asad will face the same fate as Al-Qadhafi soon, saying that the terms he used in all his speeches were the same, particularly his claims about foreign support for the rebels.
He adds: “Iran can do anything it wants in Syria and has been preventing him from departing the country. He has never been a decisioinmaker, and we, the Syrians, know very well that he is a puppet in the hands of the security people surrounding him.”
Asked whether the rebels will begin to use new tactics in this phase, Idris confirms that the rebels will surprise him soon, particularly as he will not depart Syria except by force. He says: “We reject his presence and the presence of all criminal gangs in Syria and we will not negotiate with them. We also reject any initiative or plan of which he, his gangs, all his security and non-security apparatuses, and everybody linked to this murderous regime are a part.”
Turning to Khashuqji in Jeddah, Al-Qaysi asks him whether new things have been noted in the speech.
Khashuqji says: “This speech should be treated on the regional level as if it has not been delivered,” stating that some leaks preceded the speech about an international deal for a peaceful settlement, as noted by the Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministers yesterday — a settlement that is accepted by the Syrian people — and also the statements made by Lakhdar Brahimi in this regard.
He adds: “Everybody expected Bashar to refer to this solution, but he did not and proved that he was detached from reality.”
He expresses belief that [UN Special Envoy Lakhdar] Brahimi is frustrated now, “because there was nothing in the speech that referred to reaching such a solution, which paves the way for a transitional period and the formation of an expanded government, based on the Geneva Declaration, which is supported by the Russians.”
He adds: “The only solution can be achieved through international intervention to put an end to the Syrian tragedy, because the Syrian regime looks identical to the Libyan regime during its last days.”
Asked whether the FSA has forced the regime’s army to apply defensive plans in the field, Khashuqji says that one should not be too optimistic and believe that this is true, explaining that the fighting in Syria has turned into a war between militias and that the regime’s militia enjoys air power and receives aid from Russia and other sides.
Concerning a conspiracy to partition Syria, he emphasizes that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey are strongly against the partition of Syria, stating that “the only side that accepts such a partition is the sectarian [i.e. ruling Alawite Shiite] side. This means that if a particular sect cannot rule all Syria, that side is ready to accept this sect to rule one part of Syria in order to guarantee Hizballah’s future and its unnatural expansion against history and politics.”
He calls on regional countries to intervene in order to prevent a civil war in Syria that might extend for two or three years. Asked to explain the form of this intervention, Khashuqji says that it will be similar to that which took place in Bosnia.
(… The pan-Arab TV channels, Dubai Al-Arabiyah Television in Arabic — Influential pan-Arab news channel espousing pro-Saudi Government views, social reform, and liberal values; member of MBC Group, owned by Saudi media tycoon Walid Al Ibrahim…)
Al-Jazirah, within its 1200 GMT newscast
, carries a report and interviews with Walid al-Bunni, spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, via Skype from Budapest, and Hamzah Mustafa, a researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, in the Doha studio, conducted by anchors Maryam Bil’aliyah and Tawfiq Taha.
Bil’aliyah begins by saying: “In an initial reaction to Al-Asad’s speech, the opposition Syrian National Coalition says that the speech aims to abort the diplomatic solution to the crisis.”
Asked whether the coalition has noticed anything new in the speech, Al-Bunni says that there was nothing new and that what was said was expected, adding: “However, what is new is that he (Al-Asad) wanted, through its timing and content, to abort any initiative for a political solution, whether made by the friends of the Syrian people or by some of the regime’s friends, such as the Russian Federation, which is preparing for a meeting with Brahimi and William Burns shortly. He wanted to say that any solution that does not call for the stability of his regime, restoring stability to it, or excluding the rebels from any dialogue would not be accepted.”
He adds that several Arab, regional, and international parties expressed a desire recently to reach a political solution that excludes Al-Asad from it, explaining that this why he announced his initiative, after consulting with the Iranians in order to convey a message that he is remaining in power and that stability should be restored to his regime.
Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Jasim al-Shalal, head of Syria’s military police, defected late Tuesday to Turkey, joining the revolutionaries against the regime. He announced his defection in a YouTube video, saying that the Syrian army is no longer fulfilling its primary mission, of defending the country from attack, but rather has become a gang attacking the country’s own people. He said that many officers want to defect. He also alleged that the regime did indeed use gas against rebels recently.
Meanwhile, over 100 Syrians were killed around the country on Wednesday as the regime continued to fight an ever-widening insurgency and popular revolution. Regime forces were alleged by rebels to have massacred 20 non-combatants in Qahtaniya, Raqqah Province. The Syrian Human Rights Observatory in the UK now estimates that the death toll in the revolution that began in spring, 2011, has climbed to 45,000.
Facebook comments by anti-regime dissidents say that Maj. Gen. Shalal had for some time been sympathetic to the uprising, and had sometimes had police barricades removed for more effective popular protests. He may have been suspected by the regime in recent weeks of insufficient loyalty, and was scheduled for retirement next month.
He was not well known in Syria, since the MPs mainly deal with discipline issues among the troops themselves. But his defection is surely a blow to regime morale for exactly that reason. If it is true that the head of Syria’s military police has for some time been cooperating with the revolutionaries, that is yet another very bad sign for the collapsing regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his Baath Party.
Shalal is not the most senior military figure to go over to the other side. Manaf Tlass, Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard and his brother and father (a former Minister of Defense) have defected. And, a prime minister, deputy ministers, and a number of ambassadors have also joined the opposition.
There are more Middle Eastern Christians than ever before, and they are poised between emergence as a new political force in a democratizing region and the dangers to them of fundamentalism and political repression. The arguments you see for Christian decline in the region are mostly wrong. If we count the Christians in the Arab world and along the northern Red Sea littoral (Egypt, the Levant, Iraq and the Horn of Africa to the borders of Ethiopia) they come to some 21 million, nearly the size of Australia and bigger than the Netherlands. (This figure does not count the large Christian expatriate populations in the Gulf emirates or Christians in Iran and Pakistan). They are important in their absolute numbers, which have grown dramatically in the past 60 years along with the populations of the countries in which they live. If the region moves to parliamentary forms of government, they may well be coveted swing voters, gaining a larger political role and louder voice than ever before.
In fact, despite all the hype about the rise of Islam in Europe, Muslims in that continent have on the whole much less potential influence than Christians in the Middle East. About 5% of the French electorate is Muslims, the largest proportion in Europe. But Christians are 10 percent of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and 22 percent of Lebanon. Even in Israel, they are 2 percent of the population, a little less than the percentage of contemporary Italy that is Muslim.
Among the biggest dangers to Middle Eastern Christians in 2012 were these:
1. Israeli occupation has made life in East Jerusalem and the West Bank increasingly unbearable, spurring emigration abroad of Palestinian Christians, who once made up 10 to 20 percent of the Palestinian population. Because they are Christians, these Palestinians may find it easier to get visas to the West.
2. The Syrian civil war has displaced or endangered many Syrian Christians, who make up between 10 and 14 percent of the 22-million strong Syrian population. At the upper estimates, there are as many as three million Syrian Christians. There are allegations that Christians have been targeted by hard line fundamentalist militias, but most probably suffer from the same difficulties other Syrians are facing.
3. Iraqi Christian expatriates in Syria are also in trouble. Before George W. Bush invaded Iraq, there were about 800,000 Christians in a population of 25 million, or 3 percent of the population. Some 400,000 are said to have emigrated, mainly to Syria (and about 10,000 to Lebanon), as refugees. But now many of those who went to Syria are returning to Iraq. Inside Iraq itself, some Christians say the situation has improved for them to the point that they are committed to staying in the country rather than emigrating.
4. The newly enacted fundamentalist constitution in Egypt and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi, poses dangers to Egyptian Christians. It is alleged that hard line Salafis attempted to intimidate them from voting against the constitution in this month’s referendum. On the other hand, Egyptian Christians have clearly been invigorated by the new press and political freedoms in post-Mubarak Egypt, and are gaining an important set of political voices.
5. In the new country of South Sudan, Christians form between 10% and 50% of the 8 million population (the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church each claim about 2 million believers in that country. Christians in the region may thus have gained a great deal of influence in a whole new state. Earlier estimates from the mid-20th century of only 10% Christian are probably out of date and do not take account of the large number of conversions since then). The challenges here are enormous, though. The partition of Sudan has not in fact led to social peace between the two, with continued confrontation over oil exports and saber rattling. (Sudan is inarguably in the Middle East, and I have hung around with South Sudanese and was surprised how many spoke Bedouin Arabic).
6. Christians are about 60% of the 6 million-strong population of Eritrea. They are Coptic Orthodox, the same as most Egyptian Christians. (Eritrea is not usually counted in as being part of the Middle East, but it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and has substantial cultural and political relations with Yemen and Saudi Arabia, so it is as eligible as Sudan and Somalia). Eritreans suffer under authoritarian government and continued tensions with Ethiopia.
Christians in Iraq and Syria have faced challenges (as have the entire populations of those two countries) in the past year. Christians in Egypt are alarmed by the new political muscle of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be easy to construct a ‘vale of tears’ kind of narrative of Middle Eastern Christianity in decline, since the communities face political turmoil. It is often alleged that the proportion of Christians in the region has declined, though it is not clear that this allegation is true on a regional basis.
This argument from a declining proportion of the population does not take account of the region’s amazing population growth. It also makes analogies from the small nations of Lebanon and Palestine, which actually have an unusual demographic profile.
It is controversial what proportion of Egypt is Christian, but it is probably around 10 percent. A lot of Christians live in rural areas where census takers may not have gotten a complete count. Egypt’s population is 83 million, so that would give 8.3 million Christians. There is no reason to think that their proportion in Egypt has declined (in fact they may be somewhat higher a proportion now than in the 19th century).
Egypt’s population in 1950 was about 20 million, at which time there were 2 million Christians. Because Egyptian Christians are substantially rural, they appear to have shared in the high population growth rates typical of global south farmers in the second half of the 20th century.
Today’s Christian population in Egypt, some 8.3 million, is roughly the size of the whole country of Austria! Allegations that 100,000 Egyptians have emigrated since the revolution in February 2012, and that most of these are Christians, are not to my knowledge substantiated, and they seem exaggerated. Even if there was something to the assertion, it isn’t a big dent in a population of 8.3 million.
If we went back to 1850, in absolute terms the number of Christians in Egypt and the Levant was tiny. 500,000 in Egypt, 150,000 in Lebanon and Syria together, 35,000 in Palestine, perhaps 45,000 in Iraq. That is 730,000. So in absolute terms, Egypt alone now has more than 11 times as many Christians as lived in the central lands of the Middle East 162 years ago. How is that a decline?
The argument for decline is usually made from Lebanon, where Christians were a bare majority in 1931, but are now something like 22%. But Lebanon’s population was about 800,000 in 1931, so Christians were 408,000. Lebanon’s population is now 5 million, and Christians inside the country are about 1.1 million. So with all the vast Christian Lebanese emigration abroad, to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the United States, Mexico, etc. (with perhaps 6 million Lebanese-descended people in the New World), there are still twice as many Christians in Lebanon in absolute terms now as there were in 1931. And although it is consequential politically that Lebanese Christians are now less than a third of the adult electorate, they are hardly powerless. They dominate the presidency, the officer corps, and the business world, and they are split between allying with the Sunni Muslims and allying with the Shiites, which gives them influence as a swing vote.
Christian power in Lebanon comes in part from the country’s clan system and in part from its long history of parliamentary governance. For instance, it is important for the Shiite party, Hizbullah, to have Christian allies in the Biqaa valley. This principle holds true elsewhere. There is every prospect that as parties are formed and become important in contesting elections in Egypt, the 8 million Coptic Christian votes will be courted, and will make themselves felt in policy. Likewise, if Syria moves to a parliamentary system, the 3 million Christians there will be a force to be reckoned with in Syrian politics.
In Jordan, Christians are 10 percent of the 6 million strong population, or 600,000.
These are parlous times for Middle Eastern populations who are challenging older forms of government rooted in mid-20th century notions of nationalism, socialism and a leading role for the military. We don’t know how this story will turn out. The “Islamic winter” notion of the Neoconservatives (who were unhappy that the American public was identifying with rebellious Arab youth), however, is way too simplistic. The Muslim fundamentalists took a bath in the Libyan elections last July. The Nahda Party in Tunisia only got about 37% of seats in parliament and could only form a government in coalition with a secular party; they have renounced trying to put Islamic law or sharia in the constitution. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Morsi, won the presidency in June with only 51% of the vote, and his proposed constitution lost in the megalopolis of Cairo and only got a third of registered voters to go to the polls. Egyptian Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has founded a political party, and I very much doubt he plans to emigrate.
The old Middle Eastern dictatorships often exploited Christians or subordinated them. The Christians were deprived of a voice and of the chance for autonomous political action just like everyone else. But now, they are potentially in a position to organize, speak out and vote as never before. And they are arguably more numerous in absolute terms than ever before. From the point of view of a social historian, these days could be the beginning of an unprecedented efflorescence of Christianity in the region– not Western-missionary, Christianity, not evangelicalism or fundamentalism, but Coptic Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other indigenous and ancient strains. There are no guarantees in life, but let us give them a chance, on this day when their religion was born.
Opposition forces said that Syrian fighter jets bombed the town of Halfaya near Hama on Sunday. The bombs struck a crowd standing in line to buy bread, and some 200 victims are said to have been killed, and dozens more injured.
The attack on Halfaya likely was the regime’s response to its fighters confronting the pro-government shabiha militias based in two largely Christian towns nearby. The shabiha death squads are formed of Alawi Shiite criminal gangs who used to be used by members of the ruling al-Assad family for smuggling and extortion. The upper echelons of Syria’s Baath government are filled by members of the Alawi Shiite minority, which forms about 10 percent of the population. Most Syrians are Sunni Arabs, but about 35% belong to religious or ethnic minorities.
Arabic language reports allege that most of the victims were children. Videotape of the horrible death toll emerged on the web, though as with all news from Syria it cannot be independently verified.
That many victims were children does make sense, since it is common in the Levant for families to send them with some coins to buy bread.
Also over the weekend, opposition fighters in Aleppo took over yet another regime military base, using the cover of a heavy fog. The al-Hawa base had housed 120 infantrymen. They regime’s position in the north of the country seems to be collapsing, since it has lost control of trunk roads leading north from the capital of Damascus, cutting remaining troops off from resupply. The regime also now faces difficulty in receiving Russian and Iranian weaponry and ammunition, because of the fighting at Damascus airport.
UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi went back to Damascus on Sunday, but had to fly into Beirut and go overland because of clashes near Damascus’s international airport. Opposition leaders told the Arabic press that the time for a political solution has long since passed.
With every passing month, the Syrian state seems to control less and less territory and to hold the loyalty of fewer and fewer of its citizens. The only question seems to be when Damascus will finally rise up and move against the presidential palace.