AVOID MUSLIM SYRIA
Islamic State militants seize Syrian city of Palmyra, threatening ancient ruins
By Loveday Morris May 20
The Washington Post
BAGHDAD — Islamic State militants seized control of the majority of the Syrian city of Palmyra on Wednesday, marking the second significant strategic gain for the group in the past week and leaving one of the region’s most renowned archaeological sites in peril.
Activists and Syrian state media said pro-government forces had withdrawn from the city 130 miles northeast of Damascus after a week-long assault by the militants. The city’s notorious Tadmor Prison, where scores of anti-regime political prisoners are incarcerated, was also in the extremist group’s hands by nightfall, activists said.
The gain consolidates the Islamic State’s control west toward the Syrian capital and east in the direction of the border with Iraq, where militants seized the city of Ramadi on Sunday. Advances by the Islamic State demonstrate the group’s ability to continue to take territory, despite recent assertions by American officials that it remains largely on the defensive after 10 months of U.S.-led airstrikes.
The fall of Palmyra to Islamic State forces effectively puts its ancient sites, which lie just on the outskirts of the modern city, in the group’s hands. Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, said she was “ deeply concerned” about the situation at the site, which rose to prominence as a wealthy caravan oasis in the 1st century A.D. After some 2,000 years, the striking Roman colonnades of the Temple of Baal still stand majestically in the desert.
Since its advances in Iraq last summer, the Islamic State has laid waste to sites dating to antiquity, branding them heretical according to its interpretation of Islam. Its fighters have smashed statues and buildings and sold off ancient artifacts that were small enough to be smuggled. The area surrounding Palmyra is also rich in gas and oil, potentially boosting the Islamic State’s wealth.
The “vast majority” of the city is in Islamic State hands, said a Syrian activist who is in contact with sources in the area. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Clashes were continuing at the city’s military intelligence headquarters, while Islamic State fighters had surrounded the military airport and seized several weapons depots, he said.
An activist in Palmyra who for security reasons uses the pseudonym Ahmed al-Homsi said the Islamic State had released prisoners from Tadmor. The Syrian government’s warplanes were carrying out airstrikes Wednesday night, he said.
The capture of Palmyra, home to roughly 50,000 people, is one of the Islamic State’s first significant advances directly against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Islamic State fighters had previously won ground in Syria mainly from rebel groups.
Pro-government defense units had withdrawn from Palmyra after evacuating civilians following an attack during which Islamic State militants attempted to enter the city’s archaeological sites, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported.
Hundreds of ancient statues were removed from Palmyra for safekeeping as the militants closed in, Syrian officials told the news agency. Pro-government forces had largely pulled back 25 miles southwest to Sawwana, activists said.
Syrian Islamists: No to Democracy, Minority Rights
Rift between Syrian rebel movements grows as Islamist leader rejects democracy, declaring: ‘The Koran is our law.’
By Dalit Halevy, Maayana Miskin
Israel National News
Recent statements from various leaders within the Syrian rebel movement show that the rift between secularists and Islamists remains a key issue.
video released by a leading Islamist faction shows Islamist military
leader Abu Bilal al-Homsi exhorting his followers to reject the largely
secular Free Syrian Army, led by Salim Idris.
to Al-Homsi, Idris has said that the Free Syrian Army under his command
is fighting for "democracy, secularism, communism, and the rights of
minority groups", including Syrian Druze.
must fight not for democracy or rights, but for Islam, Al-Homsi
declared. From the beginning, the purpose of the rebellion was to
institute Islamic law, he argued.
“The Koran is our law,” he emphasized.
argued that Idris’ alleged statements constitute a betrayal of
thousands of rebel fighters who died for Islam, and prove that the Free
Syrian Army is taking orders from foreign powers.
groups fighting in Syria have created an “Islamic Front” including over
50 militias. The group does not include Al Qaeda-linked factions.
states held their first meeting with the Islamic Front last week. Their
goal was reportedly to encourage Islamists to re-establish their ties
with the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and to support the upcoming
“Geneva 2” peace conference.
Rebel forces report massive death toll after Syrian chemical attack
Free Syrian Army says over 1,100 people killed, though others report lower numbers; assault comes as UN inspectors in area to probe for chemical arms use; regime denies reports
BY AP AND TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF August 21, 2013,
Syrian activists close to the country’s opposition claimed hundreds of people were killed in a devastating “poison gas” attack by regime forces outside Damascus Wednesday.
The attack came as UN chemical weapons inspectors were beginning a probe of chemical weapon use in sites around Syria.
There were several differing reports on the numbers of dead. A Free Syrian Army source told Al Arabiya the death toll stood at 1,188, while the Local Coordination Committees said some 785 people were killed. A nurse at an emergency clinic in Douma told Reuters the death toll was at 213, and the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 40 were confirmed dead and the death toll could reach over 200.
Groups quoted activists as saying that regime forces fired “rockets with poisonous gas heads” in the attack.
The Syrian Observatory said the shelling was intense and hit the eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma. Activists told Reuters that Jobar was also targeted. The areas are largely held by rebel forces.
intensive bombardment as well as the sound of fighter jets could be
heard by residents of the Syrian capital throughout the night and early
Wednesday, and gray smoke hung over towns in the eastern suburbs.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Syrian Observatory chief, said the activists in the area said “poisonous gas” was fired in rockets as well as from the air. He added that regime forces were on a wide offensive on the eastern and western rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
Mohammed Saeed, an activist in the area, told The Associated Press via Skype that hundreds of dead and injured people were rushed to six makeshift hospitals in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
“This is a massacre by chemical weapons,” said Saeed. “The visit by the UN team is a joke … Bashar is using the weapons and telling the world that he does not care.”
The use of a chemical agent could not be immediately verified. The government denied it had used chemical weapons, according to a report in the state-run SANA news agency.
An activist group in the town of Arbeen east of Damascus posted on its Facebook page pictures purporting to show rows of Syrian children, wrapped in white death shrouds, and others, with chests bared. There appeared to be very little signs of blood or physical wounds on the bodies.
The photos distributed by activists to support their claims were consistent with AP reporting of shelling in the area, though it was not known if the victims died from a poisonous gas attack.
hours after the attack dozens of videos were posted to YouTube showing
reported victims of the attack, including children. Some videos showed
dozens of bodies while others showed doctors and others struggling to
treat people having seizures. The veracity of the videos could not be
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “deeply concerned” by the reports.
The Syrian Observatory called upon the UN team in Syria and all international organizations “to visit the stricken areas and to guarantee that medical and relief supplies reach the people as soon as possible.” It also called for an investigation into the attack.
The Arab League also urged the UN officials currently in Syria to “immediately” travel to the attack site and conduct an investigation.
The 20-member UN team, led by Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom, arrived in Damascus on Sunday to investigate three sites where chemical weapons attacks allegedly occurred: the village of Khan al-Assal just west of the embattled northern city of Aleppo and two other locations being kept secret for security reasons.
The mandate for the planned probe is limited: The team will report on whether chemical weapons were used, and if so which ones, but it will not determine the responsibility for an attack. This has led some commentators to question the value of the investigation.
said to have one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons,
including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin, though it has never
admitted possessing such weapons.
Diplomats and chemical weapons experts have raised doubts about whether the experts will find anything since the alleged incidents took place months ago.
The Syrian government initially asked the UN to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack on March 19 in Khan al Assal, which was captured by the rebels last month. The government and rebels blame each other for the purported attack which killed at least 30 people.
France and the US followed with allegations of chemical weapons use in
Homs, Damascus and elsewhere. UN Mideast envoy Robert Serry told the
Security Council last month that the UN has received 13 reports of
alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.
The Price of Loyalty in Syria
By ROBERT F. WORTH
Published: June 19, 2013
The New York Times
The Damascus neighborhood known as Mezze 86 is a dense, dilapidated warren of narrow hillside streets adorned with posters bearing the face of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The presidential palace is nearby, and the area is crawling with well-armed guards and soldiers. It is next to impossible to enter unless you are accompanied by government officials or well-known locals, almost all of them members of Assad’s Alawite sect. I drove there on a quiet Friday morning in May, and we were stopped several times at checkpoints by young soldiers who examined our documents carefully before waving us on. When we arrived at our destination, in a small parking lot hemmed in by cinder-block towers, I emerged from the car to the suspicious glares of several middle-aged men in fatigues. “They are not expecting foreigners here,” one of the men who accompanied me said. “The rebels are trying constantly to hit this place, because they know who lives here.” He pointed to a damaged roof not far away. “A mortar struck very close the other day. A lady was killed just above us, and another just below.”
To many Syrians, Mezze 86 is a terrifying place, a stronghold for regime officers and the ruthless paramilitary gunmen known as shabiha, or “ghosts.” These are the men accused of carrying out much of the torture and killing that has left more than 90,000 people dead since the Syrian uprising began two years ago. Some of the older men living in the neighborhood are veterans of the notorious defense brigades, which helped carry out the 1982 massacre of Hama, where between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed in less than a month. Yet Mezze 86 now emanates a sense of aggrieved martyrdom. The streets are lined with colorful portraits of dead soldiers; every household proclaims the fallen and the wounded and the vanished.
there to meet a woman named Ibtisam Ali Aboud, who had fled her home
after her husband — a retired Alawite officer named Muhsin — was killed
in February by rebels. Ibtisam is a woman of 50, but she looked 20
years older, her face a pale canvas of anxious lines over her long,
black mourning cloak. Her son was with her, a timid-looking 17-year-old
named Jafar. We spoke in a dingy, sparsely furnished room, with a
picture of a bearded Alawite saint on the wall. “We never used to feel
any distinction between people of different sects,” Ibtisam told me.
“Now they are ready to slaughter us.” Her husband’s killer was a car
mechanic named Ayham, she said, who had eaten at their table and
casually borrowed money from her husband only 10 days earlier,
promising to pay it back soon. Someone had been slipping notes under
their door — “Die, Alawite scum,” “Get out, regime thugs” — and
sectarian killings and kidnappings were growing more common; even
Muhsin had narrowly escaped being taken captive by armed men. But he
refused to listen to his wife’s warnings when she told him that Ayham
was working with Sunni rebel gunmen. “Ayham is my friend,” he had told
her. “This is Syria, not Iraq.” One night he went out to run an errand
and never came home. They found his body in the family car the next
day, a bullet hole in his head. The family’s small auto-repair shop was
burned to the ground days later. Jafar said that he was on his way home
from there when five men surrounded him. “We will cut you all to pieces
if you don’t get out,” the men said. “You will follow your father to
family fled their home on the capital’s outskirts to Mezze 86, where
they would be surrounded by other Alawites. “We are the ones who are
being targeted,” Ibtisam told me. “My husband did nothing. He was a
retired officer volunteering at a hospital.” Now, she said, she could
barely afford to rent two cramped rooms with her four children. A dull
artillery boom shook the coffee cups on the table where we sat. The men
who took me to her, also Alawite, began to reel off their own stories
of murdered friends and relatives, and of neighbors abducted by rebels.
“You will find stories like this in every house, people killed, people
kidnapped, and all because of their sect,” one of them said. “They
think all Alawites are rich, because we are the same sect as Bashar
al-Assad. They think we can talk to the president whenever we like. But
look how we are living!”
in the room would say it, but there was an unspoken sense that they,
too, were victims of the regime. After two years of bloody
insurrection, Syria’s small Alawite community remains the war’s opaque
protagonist, a core of loyalists whose fate is now irrevocably tied to
Assad’s. Alawite officers commanded the regime’s shock troops when the
first protests broke out in March 2011 — jailing, torturing and killing
demonstrators and setting Syria on a different path from all the other
Arab uprisings. Assad’s intelligence apparatus did everything it could
to stoke sectarian fears and blunt the protesters’ message of peaceful
past two years have made clear that those fears were not completely
unfounded, and it did not take much to provoke them. Syria’s Sunnis and
Alawites were at odds for hundreds of years, and the current war has
revived the worst of that history. Radical jihadis among the rebels now
openly call for the extermination or exile of Syria’s religious
minorities. Most outsiders agree that Assad cynically manipulated the
fears of his kinsmen for political survival, but few have asked — or
had the opportunity to ask — how the Alawites themselves feel about
Assad, and what kind of future they imagine now that the Sunni Arab
world has effectively declared war on them.
horrible is that everyone is now protecting his existence,” Sayyid
Abdullah Nizam, a prominent cleric in Damascus, told me. “For all of
the minorities, it is as if we have entered a long corridor with no
day I arrived in Syria, in late April, I was startled by the seeming
normality of the capital. There was fresh fruit in the market stalls
and crowds of shoppers in the Old City; sweet apple-flavored tobacco
smoke drifted from the cafes. But checkpoints were everywhere, and I
could not walk 10 yards without a plainclothes member of the new
National Defense Forces demanding my ID. Behind the comforting bustle
of street sounds, the dull thump of artillery could be heard, day and
night, like intermittent thunder. No one ever remarked on it, and in
the spring sunlight it was hard to imagine that people were fighting
and dying only a few miles away.
after taking the highway north out of Damascus did I see the war —
houses reduced to rubble or burned beyond recognition, posters bearing
the faces of Assad and his clan shot to pieces. As we drove past the
suburb of Harasta, where some of the worst fighting has raged in recent
months, a huge column of black smoke rose from a cluster of houses a
few hundred yards away. My driver, a disheveled young man named Ahmad,
glanced anxiously back and forth. The speedometer needle pushed past 90
miles per hour, and I wondered how our worn-out Hyundai would hold up.
“This is a very dangerous area,” Ahmad said. “We must go fast.”
the suburbs, the highway skirts the embattled city of Homs and then
turns west, toward the mountainous Alawite heartland along the
Mediterranean. This is the route Bashar and his loyalists would take
if, in the fantasy embraced by their enemies, they ever abandon the
capital and try to forge a rump state in the land of their ancestors.
The landscape along the highway grows greener the farther north you go,
and the signs of war slowly fade. Magnificent snow-capped mountains
rise to the west, and later the glittering blue plane of the sea comes
into view. The hills are dotted with olive and fruit trees, and the
smell of eucalyptus mingles with the sea breeze. Latakia, the capital
city of Syria’s Alawite region, is a sleepy seaside town with a
tattered charm. The hills around it have long provided refuge for
Syria’s minorities, and once briefly formed part of an Alawite state
under French protection, just after the First World War. This gives its
people a different view of the country and its history, one that
Western journalists have not often been permitted to see. It was in
Latakia that I met a devoted regime supporter named Aliaa Ali, the
27-year-old daughter of a retired Alawite military officer and a French
teacher. Aliaa has a broad, pretty face and knitted brows that convey a
mix of petulance and determination. She is intelligent and fully aware,
thanks in part to a year spent studying in England, of how the West
views the conflict. Unlike many loyalists, she was willing to
acknowledge the brutalities of her own side, and at times seemed
embarrassed by the Syrian police state. “I was pro-revolution at
first,” she said. “There is a lot that needs to change here, I know
that. But the fact is that it turned sectarian and violent much sooner
than people think.”
April 2011, Aliaa told me, she was in traffic on a coastal road when
she heard loud explosions and gunfire that lasted for several minutes.
Only after returning home to Jableh, where she lives, did she learn
that nine Syrian soldiers had been ambushed and killed nearby. Early
reports described them as would-be defectors killed by their superiors,
but no evidence for that claim has ever emerged, and amateur video
taken at the scene suggests the killers were rebel gunmen. For Aliaa
and her friends, it fit a pattern: the Western media were refusing to
acknowledge the violence of the uprising and ignoring the losses on the
spring, despite the protesters’ insistence on an inclusive movement,
sectarian rhetoric began creeping in. One popular slogan was “We don’t
want Iran, we don’t want Hezbollah, we want someone who fears God.”
This may sound harmless to outsiders, but in Syria it was a clear call
to Sunnis to rally against their enemies. During the summer of 2011, a
bizarre rumor spread that if rebels banged on metal after midnight and
uttered the right prayer during the holy month of Ramadan, Alawites
would disappear. When I visited Aliaa’s home, she led me out to the
balcony and showed me a terrace on the neighboring building. “You see
that terrace?” she said. “They were banging on metal in the middle of
the night. My father got out of bed and shouted: ‘Shut up! We’re not
going to disappear!’ ” Later, as we were walking down the stairwell,
she pointed out a circle with an X in it drawn on the wall. “That was a
symbol the opposition used to mark their targets,” she said. “The guy
who lives there is the brother of a high official.”
younger brother Abdulhameed described for me his own sectarian shock.
He is a 23-year-old amateur boxer who was studying in Egypt last
November, living with five Syrian friends in a house in Alexandria. One
night a young man with an Iraqi accent knocked on their door and asked
if he was Syrian. Abdulhameed said yes, and the Iraqi walked off. Late
that night, a group of men tried to break down the door, while shouting
sectarian abuse. Abdulhameed and his friends fought the attackers off
and drove them away. “But the worst part came after,” he said. “A few
days later there was a posting on Facebook, with our exact address,
saying, ‘These guys are Syrians, funded by Iran and Hezbollah to spread
Shiism in Egypt, and you must kill them.’ ” Three of the Syrians gave
up their studies and went home.
and her friends did not even pretend to be impartial witnesses to the
uprising. They shut their eyes to most of what happened in their
country after the demonstrations began: the mass arrests and jailings,
the torture, the unprovoked killings of hundreds and then thousands of
peaceful protesters. In their talks with me, they scoffed at the word
shabiha, saying it was a myth, and they seemed unwilling to believe the
regime was responsible for the sectarian rumors that accompanied the
first protests. Still, there was an emotional truth at the core of
their case. They had sensed a pent-up anger directed at them as
Alawites, and the unleashing of that anger felt like a revelation, a
sign that they had been living a lie.
own best friend — or the girl who used to be her best friend — was a
Sunni named Noura. They lived just a block apart and went to school
together and helped raise each other’s younger siblings. The difference
of sect meant nothing, Aliaa said; most of her friends are Sunni.
“Noura once told me she would name her first daughter Aliaa, and that
she’d bring jasmine to my house after she was born.” In a photograph
she showed me, Noura has a plump, babyish face and wears a loose head
scarf; Aliaa is standing next to her with an arm wrapped around her
shoulder. In 2010, Noura was engaged to a very religious man who told
her she must stop going to movies and wearing short dresses, and said
he would not tolerate her having any non-Sunni friends, Aliaa told me.
Noura went straight to Aliaa’s house to tell her, and the two of them
lay on Aliaa’s bed talking about what she could do. She soon broke off
the engagement. “She told me: ‘I can’t live with a man who thinks
Alawites are forbidden,’ ” Aliaa said.
after the first protests broke out, Aliaa told Noura about some of the
sectarian protest chants she had heard. Noura refused to believe it.
The next month, when the army cracked down in Jableh, Noura was
desperate, saying innocent protesters had been killed. Aliaa told Noura
it was “not logical” for a government to kill its own people. Noura
backed down. “Maybe we just heard different stories,” she said. As she
and her family moved deeper into the opposition camp, however, the
friendship began to fray. Once, after they had gone for a drive along
the seafront, Noura suddenly said: “If Sunnis ever attacked you, I’d
protect you. And vice versa.” Both of them laughed. “At the time, it
seemed like a joke,” Aliaa told me. “We couldn’t really imagine that
happening.” Aliaa traveled to England at the end of the summer, and
shortly after, when Noura’s mother was arrested, the two friends
stopped speaking. In October, Aliaa told me, she was half-asleep one
night when she heard a buzzing on her laptop: Noura was calling to
video chat. It was 4 a.m., but they spent an hour talking and laughing
as if nothing had changed. “When we hung up, I burst into tears,” Aliaa
told me. “I felt so happy that we were still friends, that none of the
afterward, Noura and her family fled to Turkey. In December, Noura
unfriended Aliaa on Facebook, but Aliaa continued to check Noura’s
Facebook page every day. The postings were passionately anti-Assad, and
included sectarian slurs against Alawites. Noura married a Sunni man
from Jableh, whose Facebook photo showed the black banner used by Al
Qaeda. In mid-May, Noura posted a long passage praising Saddam Hussein,
followed by this sentence: “How many ‘likes’ for the conqueror of the
Shia and other heathens?” Aliaa showed me the Facebook page of Noura’s
teenage brother Kamal, with an image of him clutching a Kalashnikov. “I
used to carry him on my shoulders and feed him crackers,” she said.
now lives in Turkey. I reached her by phone at the Syrian school that
her aunt runs near the border. She acknowledged her friendship with
Aliaa, but her religious zeal soon became apparent. She said her
husband did not permit her to talk by phone to foreign journalists. I
then spoke to her aunt Maha, the director of the school, who confirmed
the outlines of Aliaa’s account of the friendship and the uprising in
Jableh. Her voice rose almost to a shout as she told me only the regime
was sectarian. “Before the uprising, we lived together with no
problems,” she said. “They felt reassured about us, because ever since
the events of Hama, they felt we would not rise up against them. But as
soon as we chose the path of revolution, they felt it was directed
against them, not against Assad. We told them: We only want freedom.
But they shut the door in our faces; they would not talk to us.” Maha
struck me as a reasonable woman who regretted the rupture, much as
I asked her about the Alawite religion, I was startled by her response.
“Aliaa is a nice girl,” she said. “But the Alawites don’t have a
religion. They are a traitor sect. They collaborated with the
crusaders; during the French occupation they sided with the French.”
Alawites, these familiar accusations have the sting of a racist
epithet. The Alawite faith, developed a millennium ago, is a strange,
mystic blend of Neoplatonism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism.
It included a belief in reincarnation and a deification of Ali, the
cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. These unorthodox tenets
may have led the crusaders and other outsiders to favor them, seeing
them as potential allies against Muslims. The theologian Ibn Taymiyya —
the ancestor of today’s hard-line Islamists — proclaimed in the early
1300s that the Alawites were “more infidel than Jews and Christians,
even more infidel than many polytheists,” and urged good Muslims to
slaughter and rob them. The Alawites sought shelter in the mountains,
and rarely dared to come even to Latakia. Many of them were slaughtered
by Ottoman armies, and parts of the community stood close to extinction
at some points in their history. According to the historian Joshua
Landis, as late as the 1870s, supposed Alawite bandits were impaled on
spikes and left on crossroads as a warning. They lived in desperate
poverty on the margins of Syria’s feudal economy, often sending their
daughters into indentured servitude as maids to wealthy Sunni families.
when the French were poised to merge the newly formed Alawite coastal
state into a larger Syrian republic, six Alawite notables sent a
petition begging them to reconsider. “The spirit of hatred and
fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against
everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the
Islamic religion,” they wrote. “There is no hope that the situation
will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose
the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation,
irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the
freedom of thought and belief.” One of the petition’s signers was
Sulayman al-Assad, the grandfather of Syria’s current president. Later,
after the French abandoned them, the Alawites rushed to embrace the
cause of Syrian nationalism, and went to great lengths to make the rest
of the country forget their separatist ambitions.
thought of that petition when I entered Aliaa’s family home in Jableh,
where a black-and-white portrait of her grandfather in a stiff collar
and tie hangs on the living-room wall. “He studied in France in the
1930s,” Aliaa said brightly. Then she quickly added, “And later he took
part in the struggle for independence — I think.”
Aliaa what she thought of Alawites who joined the opposition, like the
novelist Samar Yazbek, who is also from Jableh. She grew wary at the
mention of Yazbek’s name. “I met her once,” Aliaa said. “She told me I
had a bright future in front of me. But I don’t want a future like
hers. I think Alawites who join the opposition don’t realize that they
are being used as tools. Or they think they can turn this jihadi war
into a democratic revolution. But they will never succeed.”
was also in Syria during the early months of the revolution. In her
diaries of the revolt’s first four months — later published in English
under the title “A Woman in the Crossfire” — she describes the furious
campaign conducted against her after she publicly backed the
insurrection. Her family was forced to disavow her, and leaflets were
passed out in Jableh denouncing her. At one point, she describes a
terrifying encounter with the regime apparatus. After being driven from
her house in Damascus to an interrogation center, she finds herself
with a scowling officer who knocks her to the floor, spits on her and
threatens to kill her. Guards then lead her blindfolded downstairs to
one of the regime’s basement torture rooms, where she is forced to look
at bloodied, half-dead protesters hanging from the ceiling. The officer
tells her at one point that she is being duped by “Salafi Islamists”
and that she must come back to the fold or die. “We’re honorable
people,” he tells her. “We don’t harm our own blood. We’re not like
you, traitors. You’re a black mark upon all Alawites.”
spoke to Yazbek, who is now living in Paris, she told me she believed
that the Alawite community had been the Assad clan’s first victim, that
they had been used as “human shields” to keep the regime in power.
“They believe the regime’s rhetoric, that they would be massacred if
Assad falls,” she said. “But this is not true. They are very afraid,
and very confused.” Some Alawites inside Syria quietly make the same
point, though it is far more dangerous for them to do so. But the ones
I spoke to also argued that it does not matter whether the Alawites
were duped or not, because their sectarian fears have been realized. In
Latakia, I met an Alawite cartoonist named Issam Hassan, who told me
that many Alawites who sympathized with the opposition have shifted to
the other side. “The government knew it couldn’t fight peaceful
protesters, so it pushed them to violence,” he said. “But now, the
violence we have seen on the rebel side has frightened everyone. And
look at the media: Al Jazeera and Syrian state television take
different sides, but both are pushing toward the same end. They are
warm Thursday night in Damascus, I met on old friend at a club called
Bar 808, one of the last holdouts for the city’s hipster youth and a
popular spot among those who quietly sympathize with the opposition. I
pushed through the crowds and entered a throbbing den of young Syrians
dancing and drinking and making out. At the bar, my friend Khaled gave
me a sweaty bear hug and bought me a beer. He is a novelist and a
bohemian, with a massive head of steel-gray curls and a raucous laugh.
But the past two years have aged him. We talked about mutual friends,
most of them now scattered in Beirut or in Europe. “I can’t give up on
the revolution,” Khaled said. “I won’t leave Damascus.” He put his arm
around a young woman and introduced her as Rita. “Khaled is the only
optimist left in Syria,” Rita said. When I asked her about the
opposition, she said: “I am ashamed to say it, but the opposition has
lost its meaning. Now it is only killing, nothing but killing. The
jihadis are speaking of a caliphate, and the Christians are really
frightened.” There was a pause, filled by the churn of Arab pop music.
“I waited all my life for this revolution,” Rita said. “But now I think
maybe it shouldn’t have happened. At least not this way.”
opposition has lost its meaning, so has the regime. The Assad clan has
always defined its Syria as the “beating heart of Arabism,” the bulwark
of the Palestinian cause. The Baath Party was meant to embody this
spirit, and Syria’s minorities were eager to prove their loyalty as
Arabs in a Muslim-majority society. This was the glue that would hold
together the country’s fractious communities. But now Syria has been
formally excommunicated by the Arab League, the reigning pan-Arab
institution, and the old unifying ideologies — paid lip service until
the crisis began — are openly mocked.
quiet side street in one of Damascus’s richest neighborhoods, a
prominent lawyer invited me to join him and his friends in an opulent,
booklined study. There were soft leather couches and European
chocolates on the coffee table. A 16-frame video screen showed every
approach to the house. One of the guests was the Rev. Gabriel Daoud, a
Syriac Orthodox priest who sprawled on an armchair in his black robe.
The subject of Syria’s minorities came up, and Father Daoud’s face
registered his irritation. “Minorities — it’s a false name,” he said.
“It should be the quality of the people, not the quantity. It gives you
the idea that minorities are small and weak. But we are the original
people of this country.” As for the protesters and their demands for
freedom, Father Daoud smirked: “They don’t want hurriya, they want
houriaat.” Hurriya is the Arabic word for “freedom,” and houriaat is
the plural of houri, the dark-eyed virgins that suicide bombers are
promised in the afterlife.
spoke bitterly about the kidnapping of two Christian bishops, whose
fate was unknown. “They may have Syrian nationality, but not the
mentality,” Daoud said of the rebels. “We are proud of our secularism.
We cannot live with these barbarians.” When I raised the subject of
Arab nationalism, one of the guests in the room winced. “We are
Mesopotamian, not Arabic,” he said. “We don’t want to be Arabic.”
this kind of talk everywhere in Syria. In Latakia, a young Alawite
woman who had spent time in the United States spoke about the uprising
in blatantly racist terms. “The protests started well, but after a
while, the people participating were not educated,” she said. “It’s
like your riots in Detroit in 1967. They are like losers — not good
people. Like blacks in the U.S.A.” The “barbarians” these people were
talking about — the rural poor, who are overwhelmingly Sunni and the
backbone of the opposition — probably constitute half of Syria’s
national myths may be fracturing, but it is hard to see how the map
could be reconfigured in any stable way. There is some speculation that
Assad may retreat to the coastal mountains if the war turns against
him, which it has not done lately. That region is calm and quiet
compared with Damascus, and relatively self-sufficient. But the
population is said to have doubled there since the war started, thanks
to a flood of refugees from other parts of Syria. Some are Alawites
returning to their home villages. But tens of thousands of Sunnis have
also resettled there, seeking refuge on the coast from Aleppo and other
war-torn areas. The city’s hotels are packed with middle-class people
toting heavy suitcases, and poorer exiles are camped out at a vast
sports center, where they live in crowded tents amid a reek of urine.
The local Information Ministry official warned me gruffly: “Be careful,
many of them are with the Free Syrian Army. They do not say this, but
we know.” The state of Alawistan, if it were to ever be formed, would
be riddled with potential insurgents.
al-Assad’s father, Hafez, grew up in a two-room stone house in the
mountains and helped out with the farmwork. As president, he loved to
remind people of his origins. In the 1980s, when Syria’s socialist
economy was at its nadir, he said in one speech: “Fellow peasants, no
hand will after this day be above your hand. . . . You are the
producers. Yours is the power.” Hafez’s children grew up in the palace
and never understood or cared much about Syria’s poor. Bashar’s
economic reforms in the early 2000s brought new restaurants and
nightclubs to Damascus, but the countryside sank deeper into poverty.
In late 2010, I drove through Syria’s agricultural belt and was amazed
by the damage wrought by five years of drought and government neglect.
Many peasants had abandoned their desiccated farms and moved to slums
on the outskirts of the cities, where they became perfect tinder for
there is another reason for the unpolished face of the Syrian
rebellion, a crueler one. One night in Damascus, I met a 33-year-old
computer programmer named Amir who had been part of the nonviolent
protest movement from the beginning. “We started the protests with
three principles: nonviolence, no foreign interference and no
sectarianism,” Amir said in English as we strolled in the cool night
air. “The regime targeted the protesters until they were forced to
abandon all three of them.”
if he was still active in the rebellion. “They put me in prison for two
days,” he said. “I was not tortured, no one even said a bad word to me.
But for me it was — ” He stumbled for words, then turned toward me.
“You know how Dante went to hell and was allowed to return? This cell
was 10 meters square, with 152 people in it. It was two stories
underground. There is no air, you feel constantly that you will choke.
They had an undeclared system: for the first week, you stand, all day
and all night. Then you get to lean against the wall for a few days.
Then you get to sit. When you are standing, you are terrified to fall
asleep, because you may never get up. Some people were there for only a
few hours, some for days or weeks, and some had been tortured in ways I
never imagined. For food, you get a bit of bread and some water, but
that does not matter. You get about 30 seconds, once a day, in the
bathroom, but trust me, you are not even worried about that. Because
there are people in there who are literally asking for death.” He
stopped talking, and after a pause, I asked him why he had been
“I lit a candle at a funeral vigil,” he said.
have to happen this way? Just over a decade ago, many of the Syrians
now fighting their government saw Bashar al-Assad as a kind of savior,
a gentle figure who would lead them away from brutality. He was never
meant for the presidency; his older brother, Basil, was the heir
apparent. Only after Basil died in a car crash in 1994 was Bashar —
long-necked, awkward, quiet — withdrawn from ophthalmology school in
London and anointed. He has been an enigma since the day he became
president in 2000, a man who seems to want to steer Syria on a
different course but has never actually done so.
April, I met Manaf Tlass, one of Bashar’s oldest friends, and asked him
to narrate the conflict from Bashar’s perspective. Tlass, whose father
served as Syria’s defense minister for three decades, was a general in
Syria’s Republican Guard until he defected last July. He knew Bashar in
childhood and was a member of his inner circle for years. We met at a
cafe in Paris on a warm afternoon, and Tlass, who is sometimes mocked
as a dandy, wore a blue silk shirt, unbuttoned to the middle of his
chest, and aviator sunglasses.
day the crisis broke out, Tlass said, “Bashar called me and said, ‘What
would you do?’ ” It was mid-March 2011, and the southern city of Dara’a
was in uproar after the local security director — a cousin of Assad’s —
ordered the imprisonment and torture of a group of boys who had
scrawled antiregime graffiti on a wall. Tlass told me he urged Assad to
visit Dara’a himself, and to order the arrest of the local security
director. Others, including the leaders of Turkey and Qatar, have said
they gave him similar advice.
said he continued to urge Assad to manage the crisis through
negotiation rather than force, and with Assad’s permission, he began
meeting with civic groups in towns where unrest had broken out,
sometimes with as many as 300 people. He would hear their grievances
and write down lists of possible fixes to local police corruption, lack
of water or electricity and other problems. He would identify local
leaders who could be trusted, then forward the list of issues and names
to Bashar’s people. Each time, the leaders were promptly arrested.
Finally, Tlass told me, he confronted members of the Makhlouf family, Assad’s first cousins, who are now said to be his closest advisers. “There was a big disagreement,” Tlass said. “They wanted to handle the problem with security, the old way.” He decided to speak to Assad directly, but his old friend put him off for two weeks. When they finally met, Assad made clear that he was no longer interested in Tlass’s advice. “Bashar knew from the start that this was a big crisis,” Tlass said. “He decided to play on the instincts of the people.”
morning in early May, I drove with Aliaa Ali and her brother to their
ancestral town, Duraykish, in the Alawite mountain hinterland. The road
climbs up from the coast along hairpin turns into a magnificent
landscape of lush, terraced hills and orchards. We stopped briefly to
look at a new monument to the town’s war dead, an imposing 25-foot
marble plaque engraved with hundreds of names. We parked the car at the
bottom of a narrow hillside street named for Aliaa’s grandfather and
walked up to the family house, a 100-year-old stone building with
ceramic tiles that had begun to wear away. Aliaa’s uncle, Amer Ali,
stood waiting for us, a sturdy-looking man of about 50 with closely
cropped, graying hair. He led us upstairs to a large, high-ceilinged
room where sunlight splashed in through two open walls. Dozens of
people waited inside.
had gathered them to tell their stories of relatives or spouses lost to
the war. I listened to them, one by one. They were working-class
people: soldiers, construction workers, police officers. All were
Alawites, as far as I could tell. Some were probably shabiha, though
none of them would have used that word. One of them, a middle-aged
construction worker named Adib Sulayman, pulled out his cellphone and
showed me the message he received after his son Yamin was kidnapped by
rebels: “We have executed God’s will and killed your son. If you are
still fighting with Bashar, we will come to your houses and cut you
into pieces. Never fight against us.”
20-year-old man who had been shot twice in the head and had lost some
of his memory and half his hearing told me he would go back to the
front as soon as his wounds healed. His father stared at me and said:
“I would be proud to have my son become a martyr. I am in my 50s, but I
am ready to sacrifice my life, too. They thought we would be weak in
this crisis, but we are strong.”
lunch, Aliaa’s uncle showed me around the house. On the wall was a
Sword of Ali, an important symbol for Alawites, with verses engraved on
the blade. There were old farming tools, a stick for catching snakes,
hunting knives and a century-old carbine — a kind of visual history of
the Alawite people. There were ancient Phoenician amphorae and a framed
photograph of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.
Amer Ali led me to the roof, where we gazed out at the town where his
family has lived for hundreds of years. The hills were lovely in the
golden afternoon sunlight. You could see an ancient spring with a stone
arch over it, and a mosque that was built by one of his ancestors 240
years ago. Aliaa stood next to me on the terrace, looking out at the
town with an expression of rapturous pride. I asked her how it made her
feel to know that Western human rights groups had documented repeated
atrocities by the Syrian regime — some, perhaps, by people like the
ones we had just talked to. Aliaa glanced downward. “Yes, there have
been atrocities,” she said. “You can never deny that there have been
atrocities. But you have to ask yourself: What will happen if Bashar
falls? That’s why I believe victory is the only option. If Bashar
falls, Syria falls. And then we, here, will all be in the niqab” — the
full veil worn in conservative Muslim societies — “or we will be dead.”
we climbed back down, Aliaa’s uncle showed me a rusted white tripod,
set in the center of the roof, under a gazebo. “It is for telescopes,
for looking at the stars,” he said. He looked up at the cloudless
evening sky, then down the mountain toward where the hills give way to
the vast Syrian plain. “But we can use it to set up a sniper rifle and
defend ourselves here.”
Sexual Violence Forcing Syrians to Flee Abroad, IRC Says
By Caroline Alexander - Jan 14, 2013
Rape and other forms of extreme sexual violence in Syria, often committed in front of family members, is a major reason for increasing numbers of people to flee their homeland, the International Rescue Commission said.
“Many women and girls relayed accounts of being attacked in public or in their homes, primarily by armed men,” according to the 28-page report from the New York-based refugee assistance agency. “Sexual violence was consistently identified by Syrian women, men and community leaders as a primary reason their families fled the country.”
Cases described in the report included attacks by armed rapists, especially at the roadblocks that have proliferated across Syria. The IRC was told of a nine-year-old girl who had been brutally raped, of a man whose genitalia were destroyed by attackers and of a father “who shot his daughter when an armed group approached to prevent the ‘disgrace’ of her being raped.”
More than 600,000 Syrians have fled the country to seek refuge in countries including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey since the conflict began in March 2011, the United Nations estimates. Another 200,000 are awaiting registration or are unaccounted for, and about 4 million Syrians are in dire need of assistance, the IRC said.
The last four months of 2012 saw a “dramatic spike” in Syrian refugee numbers which would strain the already limited resources in host countries and threaten to increase political, ethnic and sectarian tensions throughout the region, it said.
“The Middle East is once again facing a human displacement tragedy,” the IRC said. “The magnitude of the crisis demands a decisive response from the international community.”
group proposed a six-point plan to address the crisis that includes
increasing humanitarian aid and preparations for a protracted
In addition, the IRC recommends opening borders, expanding assistance inside Syria and offering additional assistance to women and girls in and outside refugee camps.
Victims of sexual violence need medical and counseling services in the countries to which they have fled to help them recover, the IRC said. They also need help in face of unsafe conditions in camps and increased levels of domestic violence.
The stigma around the “dishonor” of rape means the crime is rarely reported, the IRC said. Many of those interviewed said they feared retribution or were afraid of being killed by family members for bringing shame to the family if they spoke out, it added. As a result, reports of early and or forced marriage of women and girls are increasing, it said.
founded in 1933 after Albert Einstein called for an American branch of
the European International Relief Association. It works in more than 40
countries, according to its website.
Syrian violence rages despite Arab League's presence
Dec. 31, 2011
Detroit Free Press
BEIRUT -- Any hope that the presence of Arab League observers in Syria would bring an end to months of bloodshed evaporated Friday as opposition activists reported that security forces fired on anti-government demonstrations and clashes broke out with army defectors in a suburb of Damascus.
As many as 32 people were killed across Syria, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists who organize protests and report on the violence.
Opposition activists have expressed growing frustration with the observer mission, which is in Syria to monitor compliance with a regional peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from urban areas, the release of political prisoners and free access for international media. The activists say the mission is too small and too easily misled by the government, which is providing security and logistic support.
League officials have said they are getting good cooperation from the government, which blames the continued bloodshed on what it describes as foreign-backed armed gangs.
Fridays are a major day for protests across the Muslim world, as demonstrators spill into the streets after midday prayers. Syrian opposition groups urged supporters to show their strength by retaking city and town squares from which they have been violently repelled since the uprising began in March.
Tens of thousands were said to have turned out in the flashpoint provinces of Homs, Hama, Dara and Idlib.
Witnesses said security forces fired at a large crowd in the Damascus suburb of Duma, triggering fierce clashes with army defectors fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. Dozens of people were wounded, they said.
The clashes came despite an announcement by the Free Syrian Army that it had suspended attacks against security forces for the duration of the league's mission, which officially began Tuesday.
The Free Syrian Army has claimed responsibility for a number of assaults on military installations and convoys, raising concern that the country could slide into civil war.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March. The government disputes the figure and says most of the casualties have been security force members.
In Syria, fear and violence recall dark days of 1980s
Syria activists had intended this uprising to be peaceful and less confrontational. But with Bashar Assad using the same violence and mass detentions his father did, history seems to be repeating.
By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times
December 4, 2011
As the Syrian uprising extends into its ninth month, a cycle of detentions and missing people amid a violent crackdown is playing out like a tragic case of deja vu.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has been employing the same tactics that his father, Hafez Assad, used 30 years ago when a Muslim Brotherhood uprising was met with mass detentions, imprisonments that would ultimately span decades and, finally, the massacre of at least 10,000 people in the city of Hama.
Then as now, fears about detentions permeate those moments when errands run long, people don't come home when expected or phones go unanswered. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, estimates that more than 45,000 people have been detained, although Amnesty International puts the number at 13,000 or more.
"No one dares ask about them, except in indirect ways," said Dima, a Damascus-based activist who was using an alias for safety reasons. "If anyone asks about his son, he will be questioned, and he can be detained. The only way we are hearing about people who are being detained is when a friend in prison is released."
It was the same three decades ago, she said, when few dared to ask openly about missing loved ones.
"Of course, the people are saying that this is a repetition of the previous crisis," Dima said. "The situation of the '80s is repeating in the same way."
Syrian activists initially had hoped to avoid reliving history by organizing a different uprising that would be characterized by peaceful protests, attempts to cut across sectarian lines and, in the early days, demands for reform rather than a leadership ouster.
But painful parallels with the past became undeniable this summer, the day before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began, when security forces laid siege to Hama and killed dozens of people.
Now talk of history repeating itself is a common topic of discussion, Dima said.
"These tactics are played and replayed. These are the tactics they know; they are not very imaginative," said Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University in Washington. "They employ the playbook, they go to the instructions guide, so they are repeating the same behavior that they have been taught."
Indeed, a recent list compiled by activists of the methods of torture being used against detained Syrians now reads like a stolen script from the prison stories that were told by the earlier generation.
Othman Sahiouni's brother, Bassam, was grabbed by security forces May 7. For months the family didn't know where Bassam was or even whether he was still alive, and they could not ask for official information without risking another family member being seized.
News eventually came back from a released prisoner that Bassam was in a jail in Homs. He had been tortured, the family learned, and when he tried to go on a hunger strike authorities broke his arm.
Now the family waits for other prisoners to be released to get an update on Bassam's condition.
"The same crisis [as in the '80s], the same killing, the same mass graves. Nothing has changed," Othman Sahiouni said. "Everyone has an extreme sense of fear; the children, the women, the men."
And as protests against the regime grew in recent months, Assad gave lip service to plans for peace proposed by the Arab League and others while cranking up the violence against dissidents. The league finally suspended Syria, one of its founding members, and levied sanctions against it.
Amr Al-Azm, a professor of history at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, who was in Cairo last month for meetings of the opposition Syrian National Council, said the government's tactics were not surprising.
"They say, 'When this happened, we did this and we survived. This is not the time to try new things,'" Al-Azm said. "This is an ongoing cycle of the regime; it never really stops."
As the Assad government continues to follow its lethal playbook, the opposition's response also has begun to resemble the armed uprising of 30 years ago as army defectors join the Free Syrian Army, resulting in a rise of attacks on security forces and government buildings.
But the move toward an armed struggle, stemming from frustration over a death toll that the United Nations estimates to be more than 4,000, could weaken international support for the opposition.
Last month, the foreign minister of Russia, an ally of Syria, said the unrest was beginning to resemble a civil war. The comments were echoed a day later by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
There are serious concerns for Syria's future, given the brutal way the previous uprising was finally crushed. In Syria, meanwhile, activists report that more people are being killed by torture in the prisons, with families learning their fates only when they are called to retrieve bodies. Relatives are often forced to sign papers placing the blame for the death elsewhere.
"Every day killing, killing, killing," said Ahmad Sharbaji, who has two brothers in detention.
Sharbaji's brother, Yahya, was arrested in early September along with another activist, Ghaith Matar. A few days later, Matar's badly tortured body was released.
The Sharbaji family has yet to hear any news about Yahya's whereabouts. Some recently released prisoners, however, were able to relay that Ahmad Sharbaji's other brother, Maan, was in the prison clinic being treated for undisclosed injuries.
"No one in Syria can ask about the detained," Sharbaji said. "Who is going to answer you? There is no one to answer you. … It's like it was in the '80s."
A prominent businessman in Aleppo has characterized Syria as "a society in custody." Emergency rule imposed in 1963 remains in effect, and the authorities continue to harass and imprison human rights defenders and other non-violent critics of government policies. The government strictly limits freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and treats ethnic minority Kurds as second-class citizens. Women face legal as well as societal discrimination and have little means for redress when they become victims of rape or domestic violence.
positive development, the government released more than one hundred
long-time political prisoners in 2004, bringing to more than seven
hundred the number of such prisoners freed by President Bashar al-Asad
since he came to power in June 2000. Thousands of political prisoners,
however, reportedly still languish in Syria's prisons.
Arbitrary Arrest and Detention, Torture, and "Disappearances"
Syria has a long record of arbitrary arrests, systematic torture, prolonged detention of suspects, and grossly unfair trials. Thousands of political prisoners, many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party, remain in detention. In recent years, dozens of people suspected of being connected to the Muslin Brotherhood have been arrested upon their voluntary or forced return home from exile.
The London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) has alleged that several political prisoners died in custody in 2004 as a result of torture. While hundreds of long-term political prisoners have been released in recent years, many remain in detention even after serving their full prison sentences. The SHRC estimates that about four thousand political prisoners remain in detention in Syria today. The authorities have refused to divulge information regarding numbers or names of people in detention on political or security-related charges.
The government has never acknowledged responsibility for an estimated 17,000 persons—Lebanese citizens and stateless Palestinians—who were "disappeared" in Lebanon in the early 1990s and are known or believed to be imprisoned in Syria.
Arrests of Human Rights Activists and Political Critics
Human rights activists continue to be a frequent target of the government. In April 2004 the authorities arrested Aktham Nu'aisse, the fifty-three-year old head of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria after he organized a peaceful demonstration outside the parliament building calling for an end to emergency rule. He was released on bail in mid-August and permitted to travel abroad, but at this writing still faces charges under Syria's emergency law, including "opposing the objectives of the revolution."
Dr. Arif Dalila, a prominent economics professor and one of many imprisoned critics of the government, continues to serve a ten-year prison term imposed in July 2002 for his non-violent criticism of government policies. Mamoun al-Homsi, a democracy activist and former member of parliament, is currently serving a five-year jail term for "attempting to change the constitution." Five men remained in detention in late 2004 after being arrested more than a year earlier for downloading material critical of the government from a banned Web site and e-mailing it to others.
Discrimination and Violence Against Kurds
On March 12, 2004, a clash between supporters of rival Kurd and Arab soccer teams in Qamishli, a largely Kurdish city near the border with Turkey, left several dead and many injured. The following day, Kurds vandalized shops and offices during a funeral for the riot victims, and the violence spread to nearby areas. Police responded with live ammunition, killing at least two dozen people, injuring hundreds, and arresting many hundreds more. Human Rights Watch has received credible information that some of those detained were tortured in custody, and at least two of them reportedly died in detention.
Kurds are the largest non-Arab ethnic minority in Syria, comprising about 10 percent of Syria's population of 18.5 million, and have long called for reforms to address systematic discrimination, including the arbitrary denial of citizenship to an estimated 120,000 Syria-born Kurds. In June 2004 the authorities reportedly warned leaders of two unrecognized Kurdish political parties that no independent political activities would be tolerated.
Discrimination against Women
Syria's constitution guarantees equality for men and women, and many women are active in public life, but personal status laws as well as the penal code contain provisions that discriminate against women. The penal code allows for the suspension of legal punishment for a rapist if he chooses to marry his victim, and provides leniency for so-called "honor" crimes, such as assault or killing of women by male relatives for alleged sexual misconduct. Punishment for adultery for women is twice that for men. A husband also has a right to request that his wife be banned from traveling abroad, and divorce laws are discriminatory.
The government keeps no statistics regarding gender-based crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault against women, although nongovernmental organizations say that domestic violence is common and that the government does not do enough to combat it or provide for victims.
Key International Actors
In May 2004, following U.S. Congressional passage of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, President Bush banned exports of goods to Syria and Syrian commercial flights to the United States, and froze assets of "certain Syrian individuals and government entities." The law, in authorizing such sanctions, cited Syria's hosting of Palestinian militant groups, its support for Lebanon's Hizballah organization, its military presence in Lebanon, its purported efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons, and its alleged support for anti-U.S. forces in Iraq.
In September 2002, the United States forcibly transferred Maher Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian national whom the U.S. government alleges to have ties with al-Qaeda to Syria, despite Syria's long record of torturing detainees to extract confessions. Arar was arrested in September 2002 while traveling from Tunisia to Canada through New York's Kennedy Airport. U.S. immigration authorities flew Arar to Jordan, where he was handed over to Syrian authorities, despite his repeated statements to U.S. officials that he would be tortured in Syria. After he was released without charge ten months later and allowed to return to Canada, Arar alleged that he had been tortured repeatedly with cables and electrical cords by Syrian interrogators. In January 2004, Arar filed suit in U.S. federal court alleging violations of the Torture Victim Protection Act.
A Syrian-born German national, Muhammad Haydar Zammar, was arrested in Morocco in November 2001 and secretly transferred to Syria, reportedly with the assistance of the United States. He is said to be in solitary confinement in a tiny underground cell in the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence headquarters in Damascus, where torture and ill-treatment are reportedly common.
The European Commission and Syria initialed an Association Agreement in October 2004 which will be signed in early 2005 and then sent to the parliaments of all European Union member states and the European Parliament for ratification. The text stipulates that Syria must implement all international non-proliferation accords and that "respect for human rights and democratic principles" constitutes "an essential element of the agreement." No E.U. member state appeared at this writing to have called attention to the discrepancy between Syria's practices and the human rights provision of the agreement.
In September 2004, France joined the U.S. to co-sponsor U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which demands that "outside powers"—i.e., Syria—withdraw their military forces from Lebanon.
Iraq Says Syria Harbors Foreign Killers
John Ward Anderson and Hasan Shammari
BAGHDAD, Nov. 13 -- Top Iraqi defense officials on Sunday accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to operate training camps on Syrian soil and sneak into Iraq to commit suicide bombings.
"We do not have the least doubt that nine out of 10 of the suicide bombers who carry out suicide bombing operations among Iraqi citizens . . . are Arabs who have crossed the border with Syria," the Iraqi national security adviser, Mowaffak Rubaie, told journalists in Cairo, the Reuters news service reported.
"Most of those who blow themselves up in Iraq are Saudi nationals," he added.
Iraqi Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi also criticized Syria.
"We have more than 450 detainees who came from different Arab and Muslim countries to train in Syria and enter with their booby-trapped vehicles into Iraq to bring destruction and killings," Dulaimi said after meeting with Jordanian Prime Minister Adnan Badran in Amman, according to the Associated Press.
"Let me tell the Syrians that if the Iraqi volcano explodes, no neighboring capital will be saved," Dulaimi said, warning that the aim of terrorists was "to kill tolerance and destroy coexistence in Arab and Muslim cities."
The charges came as Jordan blamed Iraqi suicide bombers for three blasts at hotels in Amman on Wednesday that killed 57 people. The allegations also echo complaints from U.S. military officials that Syria has done little to patrol its 376-mile border with Iraq.
In Iraq, meanwhile, two Marines were killed Saturday when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Amiriyah, about 25 miles southwest of Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement Sunday. And a U.S. soldier died Saturday in "a non-hostile" traffic accident near Rawah, in western Iraq, about 50 miles from the Syrian border, the military said in a separate statement.
In Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, Iraqi forces arrested 371 suspected terrorists on Saturday, including the town's mayor, the deputy chairman of the city council, the deputy chief of the appeals court and several police officers, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hasan Tamimi, a senior Interior Ministry official, said Sunday.
Local officials expressed outrage at the sweeping arrests, complaining that they were based on unsubstantiated tips. The mayor, Khaid Sanjari, said he was released Sunday without being questioned. Oaf Rahoomi, the deputy provincial governor, called the arrests "random" and charged that the operation had "sectarian goals" aimed at preventing Sunni Arabs from taking part in national elections scheduled for Dec. 15.
Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population, controlled the country under former president Saddam Hussein. Shiite Muslims, who account for 60 percent of the population, now dominate the country's security forces.
Confusion continued to surround the fate of a former top aide to Hussein, Izzat Ibrahim Douri, the country's most wanted man, after an obscure Arabic-language Web site reported Friday that he had died. Douri, who would be about 63 and reportedly has leukemia, is considered the highest-ranking member of Hussein's inner circle still at large.
Another Web site, the official site of the Arab Baath Socialist Party, reported Sunday that "the holy warrior Izzat Douri" was "fine," calling earlier reports of his death baseless.
"We apologize to our brothers and sisters for publishing a statement announcing the death of brother Izzat Douri, Abu Ahmed, may God extend his life," the brief message stated.
It was not possible to independently confirm the reports. Many reports of Douri's death appear to be based on Internet echoes from the Web site in Britain with Baathist ties that first reported his death on Friday -- interspersed with a variety of stories and pictures of such figures as Paul McCartney, Rosa Parks and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
There have been several reports that Douri might be spreading false rumors about himself, and a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, warned that the reports of Douri's death could be a hoax.
"Coalition officials question the validity of the Baath party claim that Douri has died," the U.S. military said in a statement Sunday night. A reward of up $10 million would be paid "for information leading to al-Douri's capture or his gravesite," it said.
Embassies burn in cartoon protest
Syrians have set fire to the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Damascus in protest at the publication of newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Protesters scaled the Danish site amid chants of "God is great", before moving on to attack the Norwegian mission.
Denmark and Norway condemned Syria for failing its international obligations and urged their citizens to leave.
The cartoons have sparked Muslim outrage across the world, following their publication in a Danish paper.
One depicts Muhammad as a terrorist. Any images of the Prophet are banned under Islamic tradition.
However, several European papers reprinted the cartoons, citing free speech.
The publications have prompted diplomatic sanctions, boycotts and death threats in some Arab nations.
In other developments:
Palestinians protest in Gaza and the West Bank, as other demonstrators gather at the Danish embassy in London
Two Jordanian editors who published the cartoons have been arrested
Iran says it should consider abandoning commercial and trade deals with countries where the cartoons have appeared
The Vatican says the right to freedom of expression does not imply the right to offend religious beliefs.
'We defend you'
Syrians have been staging sit-ins outside the Danish embassy since the row intensified earlier this week, when Damascus recalled its ambassador.
On Saturday, hundreds hurled stones and stormed the Danish site, before moving to the Norwegian embassy.
"With our blood and souls we defend you, O Prophet of God," they chanted outside the Danish building, which also houses the Swedish and Chilean missions.
Some removed the Danish flag and replaced it with another reading: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God."
The embassy was closed, and no diplomats were reported to have been injured in either attack.
Outside the Norwegian embassy, police fired tear gas to try to disperse the protesters, but some broke in and set it ablaze.
Demonstrators also tried to storm the French mission, but were stopped.
In Copenhagen, the government called on its nationals to leave Syria at once.
On Friday, the Danish prime minister made a new bid to calm anger, by explaining his position over the publication to Muslim ambassadors.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he could never apologise for a newspaper's actions, but said he was "distressed" at offence caused.
The cartoons originated in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten paper and have been reprinted in newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands and Spain - who say they were exercising their right to free speech.
Jyllands-Posten has apologised for causing offence to Muslims, although it maintains it was legal under Danish law to print the cartoons.
30 Sept: Danish paper publishes cartoons
20 Oct: Muslim ambassadors complain to Danish PM
10 Jan: Norwegian publication reprints cartoons
26 Jan: Saudi Arabia recalls its ambassador
30 Jan: Gunmen raid EU's Gaza office demanding apology
31 Jan: Danish paper apologises
1 Feb: Papers in France, Germany, Italy and Spain reprint cartoons
SYRIA: ANTI-HEADSCARF BOOK IS BANNED
Damascus, 18 Jan. (AKI) - Reversing a previous decision, Syrian authorities have
banned the sale of a 50-page booklet titled 'Let the Headscarf be torn off,' by
an Iranian woman author. The information ministry has ordered bookstores to
remove all copies of Chahdortt Djavann's book from their shelves, and Syrian
prime minister Muhammad Naji al-Otri has told state institutions to sever links
with the book's Syrian publisher, Petra.
Despite the outrage the book has provoked in some quarters of Syria's Muslim community, Petra's director, Luway al-Huseyn, believes the decision to withdraw the book from the market has nothing to do with religion. "The reaction against the book was triggered by the security services," al-Huseyn told Adnkronos International (AKI) .
"To date I have not received any direct complaint from religious leaders, which leads me to think that it is just a question between me and the security services, he said.
Last November the book had been distributed with the authorities' consent at a conference in Damascus titled "Women and tradition" organised by the higher education Ministry.
In the book, first published in France in 2003, Chadortt, who lives in Paris, condemns the use of the Muslim headscarf throughout the world and criticises Islam's view of women. She has reportedly received several threatening telephone calls on account of this.
"It is not right to force a girl to cover her head with the hijab, When she reaches the age of 18 she can than choose to do so if she wants," the book says.
Syrian human rights activist Haytham al-Malih, whose own books have been banned by the Damascus government has however criticised the book for "distorting the Islamic religion."
The book is "not scientific nor precise when it states that Muslims consider the birth of baby girls as a shameful thing," he says.
"If the author was born into a family which hates girls, this cannot be blamed on Islam," he adds.
UN report broke Syrian taboo
By SAMAR KASSABLI
Tuesday, April 11, 2006 · Last updated 3:34 p.m. PT
DAMASCUS, Syria -- A U.N.-funded report on violence against Syrian women that appeared in state-run media broke a long-held taboo against public discourse on such issues, activists said Tuesday.
The activists said they hope the government's willingness to publicize the matter will help raise awareness in this conservative society.
The study found that about 22 percent of married women in Syria said they had been verbally or physically assaulted, with about 10 percent saying they had been beaten.
Of that 10 percent, eight in 10 said the beating came from a family member, the study found.
The state-run Al-Baath newspaper ran a story about the news conference announcing the study's results, though the results themselves were not published. The report quoted activists saying that women were subjected to violence daily and that some laws discriminated against women.
Still, the mere publication of the report was an indication the government, which controls many aspects of political life and the media, wanted to raise awareness.
"Violence against women always existed in Syria, like any other society. But talk about it is new," said Muna Ghanem, head of the state-run Family Affairs' Association, a branch of the General Union of Women. She said the group was preparing to run awareness campaigns on TV.
It was not clear why President Bashar Assad's government allowed the report to appear. Since coming to power in 2000, Assad has embarked on limited economic and political reforms, easing some of the rigid restrictions in place under his late father.
Unlike many countries in the conservative Arab world, women in Syria have reached high political positions, but activists say their status within society still lags behind.
The study, released last week by the state-run General Union of Women, was funded by the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
Aref Sheikh, the coordinator in Syria of the U.N. fund, said some in Syria's government do support the discussion of such social problems, while others deny the problems exist.
He said the study could serve as the basis for debate and action by politicians to change laws.
"It's very important to put the issue of violence against women in Syria on the table and discuss it publicly," Sheikh told The Associated Press.
The study of nearly 1,900 families said women were beaten for reasons ranging from neglecting housework to bombarding husbands with too many questions.
Mohammad Habash, head of the Islamic Studies Center and a legislator, said the report's figures were "horrible" but added that violence against women is "part of the prevailing mentality in the region."
Ways to deal with the issue include pressing for a change in the way Muslim societies look at women and in developing laws relating to women, activists said.
Still, Syria has made important strides.
Syria boasts the highest-ranking female official in the Arab world, Najah al-Attar, appointed second vice president about three weeks ago. The country also has two female Cabinet ministers out of 30.
There are 30 women lawmakers in the 250-seat legislature, and 19 percent of lawyers in Syria are women.
Associated Press reporter Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.
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