The Tyrants Strike Back


Early Monday morning, columns of Syrian tanks led the way into the southern city of Deraa (pop. 75,000), followed by infantry brigades who took cover behind them as the city was subjected to army sniper fire from several directions. I stayed up late and am watching the invasion on Aljazeera Arabic, and black smoke is a haze above the city, with artillery fire in the distance. At first I thought it was an image from Misrata in Libya. But no, it is Syria.

The Syrian army has 220,000 active troops, 11 armored divisions. and about 5,000 tanks. In March, President Bashar al-Asad had sent the 4th Armored division under command of his younger brother Maher down to Deraa. Maher al-Asad heads up both the Republican Guards and the 4th Armored Division. The Allawite sect of Shiism, to which the al-Asads belong, dominates the upper echelons of the officer corps.

But there is some evidence of a division among the Allawites, with prominent intellectuals from that sect coming out in public to protest the shooting down of unarmed protesters, and then facing arrest themselves. Likewise, the town of Jableh, with a largely Allawite population, has seen protests. Monday morning army snipers are said to have shot down 4 persons in the streets in Jableh, for no apparent reason.

The southern, Sunni city of Deraa, which has been suffering water shortages, has been an epicenter of the protests that have shaken the Baathist regime in Syria, and on Sunday thousands of its residents defied a government ban on further protests to come out into the streets to mourn protesters killed on Saturday. On Friday, the regime’s security forces are estimated to have killed as many as 90 protesters around the country. Tens of thousands of people have been regularly protesting, despite regime attempts at mollifying them, including a pro forma lifting of the emergency laws of 1963, which suspended what civil liberties there are in the constitution.


Despite the pledges of the Qaddafi government that its troops would cease attacking Misrata, they heavily bombarded the city both on Saturday and Sunday, killing at least 32 persons and wounding dozens. Free Libya forces have taken much of the downtown area along Tripoli Street, including the central hospital, the last major bastion of the Qaddafi brigades, as the latter have been pushed to the west.

Aljazeera English has a video report from Misrata later on Sunday:

In the meantime, UN allies under NATO command bombarded dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli on Sunday.


The crackdown of the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain on the protest movement (which was not exclusively Shiite) has been the big failure of the Arab Spring. At least 500 people have been arrested, often in the middle of the night, and there are allegations of prisoner abuse.

The repression was aided by Saudi Arabia, and Jim Lobe argues that Riyadh is Counter-Revolution Central.

The 6 small nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council are hard to see as a center for counter-revolution in any simplistic way, despite being small, wealthy hydrocarbon states with conservative populations. Qatar has been a cheerleader of the Arab Spring, having had bad relations with dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and with Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. The GCC spearheaded the Arab League call for a no-fly zone over Libya. Kuwait just offered over $100 million to the rebels in Libya. The GCC has tried to negotiate a path for Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in Yemen.

But in Bahrain, the Saudis and the GCC more generally have played a sinister role in instigating and backing an uncompromising crushing of the largely Shiite activists, especially those in the Wifaq and al-Haqq Parties, which left 24 dead. The regime has committed numerous human rights violations in the course of the smackdown.

Although the Sunni monarchy accuses the Bahrain Shiites of being a cat’s paw of Iran or Lebanon’s Hizballah, Bahraini Shiites (about 60 percent of the citizen population) are Arabs and most have their own, conservative Akhbari school of Shiism that downplays the role of ayatollahs. They were seeking more rights within a Bahrain context, and the major pro-reform party, Wifaq, wanted a constitutional monarchy. Most Bahrainis reject the Iranian notion of theocratic rule by clerics.

But rather than compromise with the majority of their citizens, the Bahraini royals chose to crack down hard and attempt to destroy the reform movement.

The US has offered mild criticism of the repression, thereby deeply angering Saudi Arabia, but Washington’s hands appear to be tied by its need for the naval base it leases from Bahrain at Manama for the 5th Fleet, and its need for the good will of Saudi Arabia, the world’s swing oil producer, which has an outsized impact on world petroleum prices. The Saudis have been pumping less petroleum for the past month, which has contributed to the price rise, and it may be deliberate on their parts. If so, Riyadh is having an impact on the 2012 presidential race.

Egypt and Tunisia are so far the only big successes of the Arab Spring, though there is positive movement in Yemen and Morocco. Elsewhere, the loyalty of the officers of the armored divisions may make the difference.

25 Responses

  1. Please explain why the US is intervening in Libya and not Syria.

    • Hi, Dave.

      1. The death toll in Syria is in the low hundreds–tragic and regrettable, but not in the thousands or prospective thousands as in Libya

      2. The people of Syria have not asked for international intervention.

      3. The Arab League has not asked for an intervention in Syria

      4. The UNSC has not authorized a military intervention in Syria

      5. The geography and the terrain in Syria makes direct intervention a much more difficult proposition

      • From a moral and ethical standpoint, which is the crux of many of the arguments you’ve made supporting intervening in Libya, I see no difference.

        • You haven’t read my postings very carefully if you think that. I said explicitly that the practical possibilities for doing good here were a big part of my support. I am vindicated by the rescue of Misrata.

        • Looking only at moral principles, the cases for intervention in Syria vs. Libya are certainly similar, if differing in degree.

          However, there is a huge practical element to the question of intervention as well.

      • I love it when people ask questions they believe to be unanswerable debate-winners, but aren’t.

        6. There are no lines separating the protesters and the Syrian military, making air strikes like those in Libya useless, if not actively counter-productive, to the protection of innocent civilians and protesters.

        So, now, a question for Dave: explained why you asked about “the US” in reference to an intervention requested by the Arab League, authorized by the UN, and led both politically and military by the UK and France.

      • [2. The people of Syria have not asked for international intervention.

        3. The Arab League has not asked for an intervention in Syria

        4. The UNSC has not authorized a military intervention in Syria]

        I remember how Anne Applebaum made exactly the same case against intervention in Libya. It was just a few days before all these issues were resolved and intervention went on!

    • Dave, the US has not engaged in Libya without UN sanction. US will not go into Syria, without a UN mandate.

      So as Joe from Lowell says, are you trying to damn if it does/damn if it don’t the US, because of your so-called anti-imperialist hatred of America?

  2. Are Syria and Bahrain in martial states? Why would they be written about in that manner then?

    Clearly it’s such a pressing situation which these countries (gov’ts) face with their people. It’s what Real organization of the people? Real mindsets related to gov’tal change? Wouldn’t know.

  3. Alawites might have been declared Shias by government-appointed clergy, but deification of Ali is outside Shiism.

    • Umm…..really? They ask Ali (R.A.) to intercede on their behalf much like Christians asking Jesus (PBUH). Sounds like deification to me.

      • Christians – Catholic Christians, anyway – ask saints for intercession. Saints are not deities, but elevated personages having influence with the Deity.

  4. The Saudis do not want any regime in its neighbor that goes against its interests (threaten border security, regional status-quo, etc.). It does not matter if that regime is Shia or otherwise. Its Shia paranoia does contribute to its hyper reaction in the Bahraini case. But the logic of its intervention in Bahrain cannot be reduced to a primordialist ‘Shia vs. Sunni’ logic.

    It seems that for Yemen, the Saudis, the GCC, and the US feel that they could do the same trick that they have tried in Tunisia and Egypt. To replace one face with another to calm down the crowds but to protect the regime and ensure continuity of its foreign policy. For the tiny state of Bahrain, it is difficult to preserve the regime, because it is a dynasty, not a facade of some legitimate or popular form of government. The replacement would be the replacement of dynasty with a democratic form of government, which would inevitably bring those in power who are against the Saudi-American-Israeli status quo in the region. So I do not see it as a crackdown by the “Sunni monarchy” on the Shias, but a crackdown by a dictatorial, pro-Saudi-American-Israeli regime on protesters who are against those interests and who are Shias as well as Sunnis in Bahrain.

  5. Assad’s security manual – a must read:

    In case of confrontations between military units and the protestors, a clear order must be
    issued for the Army not to use live ammunition as that will be restricted for trained
    security agents along with the black [battalions] and the secret [plainclothed] battalions.

    link to

  6. More from “reformist” Assad’s security manual:

    The use of snipers by both [black and plainclothed] battalions should be concealed in order to prevent any notice of the source of shots fired. In addition, it is acceptable to shoot some of the security agents or army officers in order to further deceive the enemy, which will further help the situation by provoking the animosity of the army against the protestors.

    Helena Cobban says we need more diplomats to establish dialogue and diplomacy with Assad. Now, that is such an informed and moral position to take by Helena (sarcasm).

    link to

  7. From reports in the Arab press, this situation is unlike others in the Arab world.

    1- The protests are largely localized to Dera’a, Douma, Banyas, and Homs. These are all Sunni areas.
    2- Those in Dera’a are not peaceful but armed. This is likely the case in Banyas, too.
    3- The death toll includes not only “protesters” but also security forces. Western media reports ignore this fact.
    4- The Muslim Brotherhood, is involved and has condemned the government and the silence of Arab governments. Strangely, Western media reports do not mention the role of the MB, though it was paranoid about them during the events in Egypt.
    5- Possible Saudi involvement in support of the insurrection are not mentioned.

    In Afghanistan the government will be expected to violently suppress an armed insurrection of the Taliban. Maliki was permitted to do this in Iraq. But apparently Assad is not allowed to do this.

    There is not question that the Assad regime is nasty and brutal. But so are many other regimes–like Bahrain–that the West supports.

    Isn’t it time for the Western press (including Juan Cole) to give fuller, more nuanced coverage?

    • How about Latakia which is an Alewite community and Qamishli which is a Kurdish comnunity?

      After slaughtering about 100 people from Der’aa, do you really expect people not to arm themselves to defend their lives and rights?

      How many security forces have died in Der’aa and if any isn’t that justice to someone who kills unarmed demonstrators?

      By killing unarmed demonstrators, Bashar is inviting the MB.

      And finally your “whataboutary” that since the west may support the sheikhs of Bahrain, then it is all OK for Bashar Assad to massacre defenseless people and disappear thousands of innocents – the moral depravity in this says it all.

  8. For Daraa to be the epicenter of revolt against Asad would be like Mississippi being the origin of a revolt against Obama. Pro-Democracy? Sometimes a mob is just a mob. That doesn’t mean the people ‘down south’ deserve to face tanks and gunfire, but it’s important that we consider the full cultural and sectarian import of the moment.

  9. Pepe Escobar provides the background and context for the situation in Syria. It’s a very different view of the world from what the Western media (and Juan Cole) present. And it’s what I’ve been reading about from independent observers writing in Arabic:

    “Saudi Wahhabis, very influential over Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, have been instrumental in inciting the people of Daraa as well as Homs. Their grievances – the long drought, total neglect from Damascus – may be justified. But most of all they have been seriously instrumentalized.

    Years ago, the House of Saud paid US$30 million to “get” former Syrian vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam. It helped that Khaddam is a relative of Saudi King Abdullah and former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. He went into exile in France in 2005. Saudi Arabia has been using him and exiled leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood against the Assad regime for quite a while. Khaddam carries a Saudi passport. His sons, Jamal and Jihad, have invested over $3 billion in Saudi Arabia.

    The House of Saud agenda is essentially to split the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah alliance – and thus progressively debilitate Hezbollah’s resistance to US/Israel. Thus, in Syria, we find the US, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia once again sharing the same agenda. The stakes are extremely high. What you see is not necessarily what you get…

    It’s easy to understand how progressives squirm when they see themselves aligned with the Medieval House of Saud – which unleashed the counter-revolution against the great 2011 Arab revolt – in a drive to bring down the Assad regime. Progressives also have reasons to squirm when they see themselves aligned with Israel..”
    link to

    As much as I support Syrians’ aspirations for a democratic, accountable regime, I shudder at the thought of this wonderful place being turned into killing fields where outside interests play their power games.

    • is a neo-fascist website. And Escobar makes no sense (never really did). To say that progressives (Escobar is a revisionist-progressive) should not align with the democracy aspirations because it MAY help KSA is silly to its core.

      And since Hezbolla is anti-democratic, anti-secular and sectarian, the sooner it gets booted, the better.

  10. from wiki on Alawites.

    “at least one source has compared them to Baha’is, Babis, Bektashis, Ahmadis, and “similar groups that have arisen within the Muslim community”, and declared that “it has always been the consensus of the Muslim Ulama, both Sunni and Shi’i, that the Nusayri Alawi are kuffar unbelievers and mushrikun polytheists.”

    I would guess that since the development of Alawism,particularly until the initiation of Syrian Baathist rule, the authority quoted is probably correct as regards the Shia Ulama consensus.

  11. Hezbollah represents the traditionally repressed aspirations of a good many Lebanese Shias, and will not in any case be ‘booted’. While railing against fascism, Mazlum, do you realize you are employing the very language of the Lebanese fascists?

    Ken Hoop: Ali ibn Abi Talib said, “There are two kinds of people: your brother in faith and your peer in humanity.” Which Alim’s opinion is wiser than that? The Alawis are self-defined as Muslim and in any case are humans.

    • Quid, Hezbollah is a rightwing extremist force that assassinates dissidents and does not tolerate any opposition to its rule by guns. It is a classic death squad militia in power because of guns as opposed to the democratic and liberal consent of the people.

      How do you know that Hezbollah represents the aspirations of Lebanese Shias, when they do not tolerate dissidents, dissension, and any debate on its sanctities? Where are the debates on the murderer Nasrollah in the Shia press of Lebanon? If you criticize Nasrollah, you will get killed, and that is an irrefutable condemnation of Nasrollah. There is no evidence that Hezbollah represents ANY Shia – until there are free and open and monitored elections in south Lebanon. The fact that this usurping party refuses to give up its tools of intimidation, killing and torture makes any election meaningless.

      Hezbollah will be booted because it is a criminal and anti-democratic organization of power seeking gun toting thugs.

      Ali ibn Abi Taleb was a mass murderer who executed POWs and took their wives for himself. Why should I care for any quotation from such a repugnant individual?

  12. I don’t care if you accept a quote from Ali Ibn Abi Talib since it was not directed at you; but your historical view is indeed hyperbolic.

    As is your view on Hezbollah. I don’t know if you are Lebanese or have ever been to Lebanon. I doubt it considering that if what you said were true, half of Lebanon would be dead. You are again spouting the unsubstantiated claims of the fascist (explicitly and proudly fascist btw) Lebanese. Hezbollah and all other parties have significant issues and dirty secrets. But there would be little point in discussing this, Mazlum, since you speak as if you are way beyond context or nuance.

    My point concerning Ali’s statement was not to venerate the man, however worthy he may be of veneration; your rejection of even the sentiment of his statement reflects badly on you. Do you in fact reject the humanity of the Alawites? N’wait… On second thought dont answer that.

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