Obama Under Pressure to Act on Syria

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Over the last two weeks Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has promised reform, however, on Friday, protesters made clear that they want nothing short of Assad’s departure with demonstrations across the country drew the largest numbers yet. In parts of the country, especially Damascus and Aleppo, security forces responded violently, leaving as many as 20 dead.

Although the EU did issue a new round of sanctions , the international community has responded timidly to the situation in Syria. The most powerful statement yet from inside the US government came on Thursday from Representative Chabot of Ohio when he unequivocally said, “Bashar must go.” As the violence mounts and the possibility of true reform dwindles, Obama is coming under more pressure to act decisively. Below is compilation of articles (dating back to last week) related to the Obama’s slow response:

Washington Post: More brutality in Syria and passivity in Washington

And Mr. Obama? His administration again failed to take significant action in pursuit of what he said would be “a top priority.” A week ago State Department officials summoned reporters to say that they were considering several initiatives, including targeting Syria’s energy exports and referring the regime’s crimes to the International Criminal Court. But no moves have been announced.

Instead, Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have been calling their counterparts in Turkey, a country whose foreign policy has sharply diverged from that of the United States in recent years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has condemned the Syrian repression, but he has also pursued a policy of courting Mr. Assad in recent years. Turkey pressed Syria to end the military operation along the border, but its foreign minister suggested Friday that Syria’s crisis could still be ended through reforms led by the dictator.

Los Angles Times: In Syria, Assad must go

The administration has assiduously avoided making such a declaration. In May, Obama said that Assad could either lead the transition to democracy or “get out of the way.” Then, in an executive order approving sanctions against Assad and his inner circle, Obama said he wanted to “‘increase pressure on the government of Syria to end its use of violence and begin transitioning to a democratic system that ensures the universal rights of the Syrian people.” After Assad’s latest speech, a State Departmentspokeswoman said, “What is important now is action, not words.”

All of these statements assume that it is not too late for Assad to lead Syria to a more democratic and pluralist society. But that scenario is improbable at best. Change in Syria will require change at the top.

CNN: Obama can’t lead from ‘lead from behind’ on Syria

After my release I supported the Obama administration’s cautious stance on the Syrian revolution. I applauded the president’s willingness to consider all options. However, recent developments have made it clear that Assad’s opportunity to institute real reform is gone. His speech Monday was merely confirmation. Unfortunately, President Obama still clings to a “lead from behind” policy that does not reflect the realties on the ground.

Hillary Clinton’s recent op-ed in Asharq Alawsat, stating that the Syrian regime is “certainly not indispensable,” represented an escalation of rhetoric, but failed to adequately shift policy. It is now in America’s moral and national interest to decisively guide the international community toward a future without Assad.

Obama no longer has the luxury of fouling off every pitch and waiting for someone else to make a move — it’s game time. Stepping to the plate does not mean mounting a Libya-style invasion. It involves peacefully hastening Assad’s exit.

NPR: The Price of Doing Nothing in Syria (with guests Deborah Amos and P.J. Crowley)

AMOS: Syria doesn’t respond to outside pressure. That is one of the hallmarks of the regime. In fact, the more pressure there is, the more they say I’m sorry, but we don’t reform under pressure. And that may have been part of the point of that speech yesterday.

CONAN: And what about the resistance? Has it managed to coalesce? Has it formed a coherent organization?

AMOS: Not as much as I think they would like. There was a meeting in Turkey a few weeks ago, and for the first time, you saw all kinds of Syrian dissidents come together and talk about a program. They came up with a very good program in about 48 hours, which was remarkable to watch that happen, and these are some long-time dissidents, a couple of young people who had been involved in organizing protests on the ground, managed to come across the border and work there.

What they said, is that it’s the insiders that are the real leadership of this protest movement, these organizations called the local coordinating committees. They work on Facebook. They talk on Skype in the evening. They coordinate with each other. They decide when the protests will be, where they will be, what the chants will be, what they’ll be called on Friday.

CONAN: And outside pressure, there’s been a measured response from the Obama administration thus far. Is there a price for doing nothing?

CROWLEY: I think the credibility of the United States is really on the line now in Syria. The stated position from the president is that Assad needs to lead a transition or get out of the way. But we’re seeing the real Syrian regime. It’s not going to lead a transition that would put itself out of business

CONAN: Yet the Arab League, there are some states apparently raising questions about what’s going on in Syria, but it seems unlikely to be unanimous on this point regarding Syria, and the Russians and the Chinese, as Deb mentioned, have been against any resolution in the Security Council.

CROWLEY: Certainly and all true. This is hard. The Assad regime is going to resist for as long as it can. But as we continue through this Arab spring, I think it’s important for the United States to not only say that its policy is to support, you know, political, economic and social reform but actually to put actions, you know, behind that policy statement.

It is vitally important that as we go through this, the United States makes clear that for those leaders who decide to work with reformers and change their countries, they will have the support of the United States and others. But for those leaders, from Gadhafi to Saleh to Assad who choose to resist, who choose to turn, you know, state-sponsored violence against their own people that there should be consequences, as well.


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Turkey Solidifies Leadership amid Regional Turmoil

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By Dexter Thompson-Pomeroy

There are very few people in the world who have made plans for 2023. Even the Olympics have only been determined as far in advance as 2016. But in the weeks preceeding Turkey’s June 12 election, posters for the incumbent AKP all over the country confidently proclaimed: “Türkiye Hazır, Hedef 2023” (Turkey is ready, Goal: 2023). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) have won their third election since they came to power in 2002, and as evidenced by their bold campaign, intend to hold onto power as long as they can.

The posters, with Erdoğan’s face looking resolutely into the distance, announced his ambitious plans for the next twelve years: The Istanbul Canal is a plan to build a 50km long, $10 Billion waterway cutting across the western fringe of the European side of Istanbul, creating a second shipping lane between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. The Prime Minister himself has dubbed it his ‘crazy project’ and among other economic goals, Erdoğan aims to have Turkish exports at $500 Billion by 2023. But despite the grandiose projects, the election victory, and talk of a 21-year AKP reign, serious challenges lie ahead for Erdoğan’s government, both internally and abroad.

Since 2002 the AKP government has pursued a policy of reconciliation with its neighbors. Spearheaded by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the “Zero Problems Policy” has generally succeeded in improving economic and political ties with Turkey’s neighbors. Trade with Iran, Iraq, Syria and Eastern Europe has increased relative to trade with the EU, keeping the AKP popular among business circles in the “Anatolian Tiger” cities like Kayseri, Gaziantep and Kahramanmaraş.

Politically, Turkey has mounted diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts with past enemies, including Cyprus, Armenia, Greece and Syria. Although progress with Cyprus and Armenia remains slow, the AKP government has greatly improved ties with Syria, and even introduced visa-free travel in 2009. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have taken enormous steps to improve relations with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, ending a long period of animosity between the two countries that peaked in the late 90s when Syria was supporting PKK rebels.

It should come as no surprise then, that today’s unrest in Syria causes deep anxiety in Erdoğan’s administration. Having painstakingly repaired relations with Al-Assad, Erdoğan was initially hesitant to denounce him for his violent response to opposition protests. Now, with a refugee crisis on Turkey’s southern borders and the recent conference of the Syrian opposition held in the seaside city of Antalya, Turkey is intextricably tied to the uprising in Syria, whether the AKP likes it or not.

Domestically, the government faces criticism for its allegedly autocratic leadership style, and its disregard for the opposition. The government has also been accused of using the ongoing trial of alleged ‘Ergenekon’ or ‘deep state’ coup plotters as an excuse to stifle political opposition. As for the opposition itself, the center-left secular Republican Peoples Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) remains far behind the AKP, especially in the areas of central Anatolia. The second largest party, the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP) is far more conservative than the AKP. The MHP suffered major electoral losses this election after a sex scandal, which it claims was orchestrated by the AKP to smear them in order to win over MHP voters. Indeed the AKP has been courting the Turkish-nationalist vote, which may make the AKP less flexible when it comes to the Kurdish issue.

In the early years of AKP rule, the party made significant inroads in the southeastern Kurdish region, by appealing to religious Kurds, and talking of recognizing Kurdish identity and rights. Today, many Kurds feel that Erdoğan’s administration has not followed through on its promises. However, with a 9 seat increase in independent MPs supported by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi, BDP) after the election, their bargaining power may have increased.

Turkey’s democracy is far from perfect, and many Kurdish activists have objected to the way in which Turkey is sometimes portrayed as a beacon of democracy and human rights in the Middle East, while abuses continue in the Kurdish region. And it is certainly impossible for Arab states to achieve a pluralistic democracy using the same method that Turkey did (modernize the state through an oppressive, ultra-secularist dictatorship, and then gradually open up to political rights).

Nevertheless, with more and more interaction in recent years between Turks and Arabs, there is no doubt that many Arabs have come to see Erdoğan’s Turkey as a source of inspiration. Whatever authoritarian, non-pluralistic politices may persist in Turkey’s government, the fact remains that unlike in Syria and Bahrain, citizens are generally free to openly criticize them without fearing for their lives. Flaws, lack of pluralism, Kurdish frustration and all, Turkey and the AKP’s blend of political freedom and Islam will continue to influence the Arab World at a crucial point in Arab political history.

As the ‘Arab Spring’ continues in Turkey’s neighbor states, Turkey will inevitably play an important role in the outcome of these various Arab protest movements. Just what that influence will be, and how much of a democratization effect Turkey will have, will depend on Erdoğan acts over the next few (or perhaps even twelve) years.

As Erdoğan and the AK Parti embark on their third term in office, the ‘Zero Problems Policy’ will no doubt come under intense scrutiny. With Syria and its refugee crisis causing a serious headache for the Turkish government, and other Arab countries looking unstable, it is possible that Erdoğan’s administration will be forced to reconsider its Middle Eastern goals, or its ‘realignment’ as some like to think of it. Nevertheless, with the AK Parti and its leaders still wildly popular in much of the Arab World, Erdoğan may see a strategic value in playing a productive, mediating, role-model role in the Middle East, and the ‘realignment’ may well continue.

Dexter Thompson-Pomeroy is a senior Columbia University studying Political Science and Linguistics.

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Are Assad’s Reforms Legitimate?

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The last five days have been full of concessions and promises from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The question now is whether the reforms are legitimate (vote on the side bar). Here is a look at three significant regime announcements in reverse chronological order:

Today from Aljazeera: Assad orders new Syrian amnesty

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has ordered a new general amnesty for all crimes committed in the country up until June 20, in another apparent attempt to calm months of protests against his rule.

The state news agency, SANA, announced the move on Tuesday, nearly a month after Assad issued a similar amnesty for all political crimes.

“President Assad has issued a decree granting a general amnesty for crimes committed before the date of June 20, 2011,” SANA reported, without giving details.

The president ordered a reprieve on May 31 for all political prisoners in the country, including members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Hundreds of detainees were released, according to rights groups.

But the amnesty decrees are believed to be a part of the overtures by the Syrian government to its opposition, largely seen as symbolic. Rights groups have criticized the amnesty measures, calling them insufficient.

Full Text of Assad’s Speech on Monday June 20, in which he called for a national dialogue. Here is the transcript of a follow-up interview that NPR did with advisor Bouthaina Shaaban. If you have the time, it is worth listening to:

Bouthaina Shaaban is a political and media advisor to Syria’s embattled president, and she joins us now from Damascus. Welcome to the program, Ms. Shaaban.

Ms. BOUTHAINA SHAABAN (Political and Media Advisor to President Bashar al-Assad): Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, reaction to President Assad’s speech today from the State Department said – the U.S. said that President Bashar al-Assad has been making promises to his people for years. What’s important now is action not words. Why, at this late date, are there not actions toward political reform?

Ms. SHAABAN: I think there were many actions taken since the president started. But I think today was a big day for Syria because the vision that was laid out today is a new vision, and it is coming out of the experience with the crisis.

So for the first time, the president called for a national dialogue to discuss political party law, to discuss electoral law, media law, to review and, if needed, rewrite the constitution. These are major decisions and major steps.

SIEGEL: Well, let me ask you about two facts of political life in Syria today and whether they’re going to be part of the dialogue or whether they’re off the table. Baathist Party rule and President Assad’s rule, do you assume that those are not up for discussion or is that part of the dialogue?

Ms. SHAABAN: No, no. That is – when you say the constitution is at the table to be reviewed or to be rewritten, it means you are calling for political participation and for democracy. It means we are changing the political system in Syria. And the president gave a timeframe for all these to be achieved by the end of the year as maximum deadline.

SIEGEL: Are you saying that President Bashar al-Assad is prepared to move to a system in which the Baathist Party is guaranteed no particular number of seats in parliament and anybody, regardless of what the security services thinks of them, can run a slate of candidates and anybody could be elected president of Syria and that system could be in place by the end of this year?

Ms. SHAABAN: Well, this is exactly what the multi-party system means and this is exactly what the electoral laws mean. And this is exactly why President Assad is calling for a national dialogue both with the opposition and with all the social strata in Syria. This will be the product of the dialogue.

SIEGEL: Who will get to take part in the national dialogue? Will you admit the leaders of the protests out in the streets to sit down and take part in the national dialogue?

Ms. SHAABAN: We are inviting all leaders of the opposition, all leaders of social groups to come and participate in the national dialogue.

SIEGEL: Would the Muslim Brotherhood be welcome to sit at that – in those talks, in that dialogue or not.

Ms. SHAABAN: Well, we don’t have religious parties in Syria because Syria is a mosaic and is a secular society. We are talking about a political system. We are not talking about a religious dynasty.

SIEGEL: And once again, broader political participation you say means at least putting on the table the Baathist Party’s guaranteed majority. Is President Assad’s leadership necessary for Syria or is that something for the Syrian people to settle by democratic means?

Ms. SHAABAN: One, it is for the Syrian people. I believe that President Assad’s leadership is very important at this stage, because he is leading Syria to a more – a multiple political system, to a more democratic system. And I believe the laws that will be issued from now until we finish all the laws advocating, will leave it up to the Syrian people to decide their future also.

SIEGEL: That the Syrian people, you’re saying, should and will be able to decide by their vote whether Bashar al-Assad remains in power as president of Syria?

Ms. SHAABAN: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Bouthaina Shaaban, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. SHAABAN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Bouthaina Shaaban spoke to us from Damascus, where she is a spokesperson and political and media advisor to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The third major “concession” came last week when Rami Makhlouf said he planned to become a philanthropist. This is from the Global Post:

Syria’s top businessman and most notorious member of the country’s leadership, Rami Makhlouf, announced Thursday he will be quitting business and moving to charity.

“I announce that I will not allow myself to be a burden on Syria, its people and president from now on,” he said in Damascus, as reported by Bloomberg.

He said he will donate his profits from investments to charity and offer shares of his company, Syriatel, to the poor.

Tik Root of Mideast Reports writes about why this last move might not be as charitable as it first looks. This is an excerpt from his recent Huffington Post blog entry:

The big news out of Syria last week was Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf ‘s announcement that he is quitting his business deals and becoming a philanthropist. Although Makhlouf is President al-Assad’s cousin, he claims that no one in the regime forced him to step aside.

Makhlouf owns the country’s leading telecom provider (SyriaTel), banks, an airline and is generally considered to “hold unrivaled economic clout.” For the average Syrian he is a symbol of the regime’s corruption, arrogance, and cronyism. His departure is undoubtedly a win for the protestors, but it might also be a well-calculated move by the regime.

If Makhlouf’s claims can be taken at face value, they could benefit thousands of Syrians, but I’m skeptical. The other “concessions” that the regime made have been far from legitimate. In April, Assad lifted the 48-year old emergency law, but replaced it with a new terrorism law and continued to brutally suppress dissent. At the end of May the President granted amnesty to all political prisoners, only to continue arresting citizens at rate of around 300 people per day in the north alone. It is yet to be seen whether Assad’s recent call for national dialogue or a second round of amnesty will bear fruit.

So what might be other reasons for Rami Makhlouf stepping down? Joshua Landis, who runs the blogSyria Comment, explored the idea that the regime is “sacrificing” Makhlouf in order to placate protestors. I am even more cynical.

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Weekly Roundup 6/19

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Picture: King Abdullah of Jordan
– This week King Abdullah gave a speech outlining political reforms that could take place. The full text can be found online. The speech came a week before the King is set to visit Washington.

– One concession that the King made was to announce plans to allow for an elected cabinet. However, he failed to mention when this might happen.

-A group of angry demonstrators stormed the French news agency AFP’s headquarters in Amman. They were angry over what they considered inaccurate reporting about the King’s visit to the town of Tafileh earlier in the week.

– It turns out that the blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” was actually a hoax run by American man.

– The crackdown continued this week, especially in the north. Mass arrests of citizens continued at rate of at least 300 people per day, and thousands have fled to Turkey.

– The regime is showing signs of stress. President Assad’s cousin and prominent Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf announced that he would be stepping away from his business activities in order to pursue charitable activities. Among other things, he will donate all profits from his 40% stake in SyriaTel to charity. The regime also sacked the head of state television Reem Hadad. Some activists are hoping that trusted army generals will eventually replace the President.

– The international community began to step up its rhetoric against Syria this week:

– The Arab league issued its first statement condemning the crackdown in Syria. However, members remain divided on whether to suspend Syria’s participation in the meetings.

– The UN released a report this week citing brutalities of the Syrian crackdown. The international community is still barred access to the country. In the security council, Russia and China continue to oppose an official condemnation.

– The EU announced plans to issue new sanctions next week that target the Syrian economy.

– Earlier in the week the United States called the violence in Syria “outrageous.” On Saturday Secretary of State Clinton wrote an op-ed in Asharq al-Awsat, outlining US policy on Syria. She said that the Assad regime is “certainly not indispensable.”

– This past Friday protestors once again took to streets across Syria. Twenty-four unarmed civilians were reported dead.

– On Monday Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati formed the long-awaited new cabinet, which consists of 40 ministers. The majority of the members (18) come from the Hezbollah backed March 8th coalition.

– The March 14th Coalition and the west are worried about increased influence from Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. The president rebuffed those claims by saying that the new government is “100 percent Lebanese.” The March 14th in particular has been intensifying its opposition.

-Two Dutch diplomats were kidnapped and brought across the Syrian border. They were quickly release when Syrian officials realized what happened.

– Fateh and Hamas have agreed on a new unity government. PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal will announce the details this coming week in Cairo.

– In an effort to restart peace talks, US officials met with Israeli, Palestinian, Jordian and Egyptian officials in Amman this week. The new US Envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross, and White House official David Hale will lead the talks.

– This week the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Freedom and Justice Party” announced that it was joining a coalition of secular parties, the most prominent of which is the Wafd Party.

– Secularists in Egypt want the constitution to be rewritten before elections take place as opposed the other way around, as is currently planned.

– Members of Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party have been banned from participating in political activities for at least 5 years. Critics say that this move is undemocratic.

– Leading democracy activist, Mohamed ElBaradei may not run for the presidency because he is unsure if he will be able to enact real reform. However, the first ever female presidential candidate has announce her plans to run for office.

– The curfew, which began January 28th and has been reduced from a peak of 17 hours a day to 3, is set to be lifted.

Protests continued in Pearl Square this week, the first mass protests since the lifting of the emergency law on June 1st. Protesters called for the “reform” of the regime, rather than the fall of it.

– The King has named the speaker of the lower chamber to chair national dialogue talks, set to begin in July while two Shiite members of parliament were put on trial for calling for regime change. Trials continued throughout the country, doctors arrested in March alleged that their confessions were extracted through torture, a female student was arrested for reciting a poem critical of the regime at a rally and seven activists have been sentenced to 1-7 years in prison.

– The Bahraini regime also announced they were suing The Independent newspaper, specifically citing recent articles by Robert Fisk. And the U.S. has added Bahrain to their list of human rights abusers.

– On the second anniversary of Ahmadinejad’s reelection, police swinging clubs broke up hundreds of protesters in the capital and an activist on a hunger strike died in protest of abuses. His cellmates say the activist, Hoda Saber, was beaten prior to his death and Reporters Without Borders say Iranian prison authorities are responsible for his death for lack of proper medical treatment.

– Some heated moments in parliament this week over an MP with alleged connections with Iran, while protesters put pressure on the PM.

Saudi Arabia:
Women in SA protested the driving ban this week, while women in Washington DC showed solidarity by driving around the Saudi embassy.

Mixed reports on both the progress of talks between the VP and opposition as well as the state of Saleh’s health. Protests continue.

Airstrikes and fighting with Islamic militant groups continued, killing scores. Gunmen with connections to Al Qaeda have attacked cities in the south and vow continued anti-government violence.

– Fighting taking a toll on life in the capital amid mixed reports on whether Saleh will return from Saudi Arabia.

– Law on the formation of political parties considered this week, as well as legislative action on the budget. Marches will continue while the military is increasing border security, preventing Libya spill over.

– France urges Algeria to “turn the page” on past relations between the country.

Military and diplomatic pressure on Qaddafi increases, while he remains defiant in hiding.

Buildup amongst Islamic groups early this week to the King’s announcement of constitutional reforms. Reforms, announced on Friday, cut some of the King’s powers but some opposition groups quickly said the concessions were not enough, and are expected to take to the streets again. Meanwhile increased food subsides raised the deficit.

– More aid has been pledged while the debate over increasing political participation continues. The trial of former president Ben Ali to start with the former head of regime in absentia.

Posted in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Other, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen | Leave a comment

#Women2Drive: Saudi Women Take to the Streets

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Since last month, when Manal al-Sheirif was arrested for driving her car in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, activists have been promoting June 17th as a day of protest against the inferior treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. The goal was to get as many women as possible out on the street driving their cars. This action may not seem significant to westerners, but it is a hugely symbolic in a country where the offense could land a woman in prison. The picture is of a ticket that one woman received; below are videos and descriptions of the event:

Videos of Women Driving (June 17):

Washington Post: Saudi women defy driving ban

At least 29 women in Saudi Arabia drove their cars Friday, after Internet campaigns inspired by the uprisings across the Arab world urged them to flout the country’s de facto ban on female drivers.

At least one of the women is believed to have been arrested in Riyadh, the kingdom’s capital and one of its most conservative cities, online activists said. She was later released.

Los Angles Times: Saudi women get in the driver’s seat to defy ban

She got her driver’s license in Indiana. She likes to drive fast.

And on Friday, Maha Qahtani, 39, in a face-covering niqab, raced through the streets of Riyadh in her family’s blue Hummer H3, defying Saudi Arabia’s religion-inspired bans on female motorists.

Just before 6 p.m., police in six squad cars pulled her over. They ordered her from behind the wheel and into the passenger’s seat. But they seemed more terrified than Qahtani.

They let her off with a ticket for driving without a Saudi driver’s license. She was elated, laughing about the incident.

Arab News: Saudi women drive home a point, again

The campaign, Women2Drive, called on Saudi women to begin driving their cars on June 17. Although there is no law against women driving in Saudi Arabia, they cannot obtain driver’s licenses. The arrest and release of Manal Al-Sharif a few weeks ago for driving in the streets of Alkhobar did not discourage women to press the issue. The campaign was about enabling women to carry out their regular errands just as their husbands and fathers and brothers do.

“The only reason why I did this is because I believe that it’s high time for a change and I don’t think it would harm anyone if women drive,” said one of the women who drove in Jeddah but did not want her name to be made public. “Friday was like a test day, just to see how people would react to us driving. All I can say is that it was more than normal. No one spoke to us and no one even bothered to look at us, it was like its normal for women to be behind the wheel.”

New York Times: Saudi Women Defy Driving Ban

Although random acts of women driving were reported in major cities across Saudi Arabia on Friday, the protest against the longstanding ban appears to have been smaller than initially anticipated after the Saudi government imprisoned a main organizer for nine days last month.

Scattered reports by social media and an informal network of activists suggested that the number of women who drove was in the dozens, with few incidents of confrontations with either the traffic or the morals police reported. At least half a dozen women who were stopped were escorted home and admonished not to drive again, said activists reached by telephone.

Maha al-Qahtani, an information technology specialist for the government, drove around Riyadh in clear weather for 45 minutes with her husband, Mohamed, a human rights activist, in the car. She braced for a siren after passing each of about five police cars, she said, but they ignored her.

“I woke up today believing with every part of me that this is my right, I woke up believing this is my duty and I was no longer afraid,” said Mrs. Qahtani, adding that she brought a change of clothes and a prayer rug with her in case she was detained.

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Syrian Revolution Guide

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The Syrian revolution (timeline) began on March 15th and was met with a crackdown from President Bashar Al-Assad. Well over 1,000 civilians have been killed, and at least 10,000 taken into custody. There is plenty of controversy over specific stats and events, but the overall trend is pretty clear. Protests continue to take place around the country, and the international community is starting to delegitimize Assad.

This current anti-regime movement is different than the 1982 uprising in Hama, and goes beyond the calls for reform found in the 2005 Damascus Declaration. Not surprisingly, the make up of the opposition is considerably different as well. Many of opposition figures, particularly the younger ones, are still relatively unknown and prone to internal disagreement. However, so far they have achieved a level of success that many did not think possible.

The structure of the Syrian regime on the other hand is fairly well documented. President Assad relies on a tight knit circle of family and friends, many of whom he inherited from his father. The Syrian army (especially forces commanded by Maher Assad) and the state security services (largely controlled by Assef Shawkat) have been violently putting out fires around the country, often preemptively. At the same time, Adnan Mahmoud (Minister of Information) and Bouthaina Shaaban (political and media advisor) have been trying to paint the opposition as “armed gangs” and dictate the dialogue.

Given that much information can be found on the regime, this post will take a look at the efforts of the opposition. It also includes a brief list of Syria activists, commentators, experts and leaders.


Various opposition members have mounted individual efforts in support of the revolution, but those will be detailed in the “people” section. This section focuses on opposition collectively.

Initial efforts, which began months ago, focused on providing dissidents with the tools they need, like satellite phones, training, and consulting. These efforts continue, but as the opposition begins to coalesce, a more comprehensive picture is also emerging.

The first major statement that the Diaspora (with support from inside Syria) released, was the National Initiative for Change. This was followed up more recently by an inclusive conference, called the “Syria Conference for Change”, which was held in Antalya Turkey from May 31-Jun 2.

In simple terms, the opposition appears to be taking a two (or possibly three) pronged approach. They are doing what they can to help people inside Syria continue to pressure the regime, while simultaneously trying to convince the international community to take more decisive action. The other piece of the puzzle that is just starting to take shape is the plan for a potential transition.

The opposition still faces many challenges, particularly when they reach the transition stage. A gap still exists between the older, more established Diaspora, and the youth organizers inside country. There are also those who dismiss efforts from abroad all together. If these internal issues are added to the potentially negative (sometimes exaggerated) effects that the revolution could have on domestic and regional stability, it is far from guaranteed that a transition from the current regime will be smooth. That said, the long-term strength of President Assad’s regime seems even more doubtful.

Conference for Change

This conference is worth looking at in depth because it is so far the most representative opposition gathering that the public has seen.

Below is a list of the major stakeholders and participants:
– Exiled or dissident Western (US and Europe) Diaspora
– Muslim Brotherhood (maybe just a faction?)
– Kurds
– Youth
– Women
– Others inside Syria (through Skype)

This is an overview of who was involved from the Syrian Revolution Digest:

“The Antalya Conference was attended by 350 participants, 50 of whom came from Syria itself, including young protest leaders.

The Antalya Conference was attended by dozens of reporters representing all major global news outlets, including BBC, CNN, France 24, Al-Jazeerah, Al-Arabiya, Al-Hurrah, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Presse, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and a dozen Turkish and European outlets, among many others. Members of the press were granted unfettered access to most conference sessions, and were allowed to talk to all conferees.”

Excerpts from a Guardian article titled “Syrian Businessmen back Opposition”:

“[Radwan Ziadeh] said leadership alternatives in Syria had been repressed. “Everyone knows that the Syrian uprising is leaderless. We need to establish some sort of balance to move ahead.

“The intended outcome is for a united opposition established on the principles of greater co-ordination inside and outside Syria.”

“On the eve of the conference, divisions were apparent. Organisers admitted they were rushed. Others, while calling for unity, privately complained of inadequate planning and consultation.”

“Organised by the Egypt-based National Organisation for Human Rights, the Turkey conference is being privately funded by three Syrian businessmen – Ali and Wassim Sanqar, brothers who are luxury car distributors based in Damascus, and Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the national organisation and UAE-based satellite channel Orient TV”

“Key business figures in Syria are aligning themselves with opposition groups before a conference in Turkey on Tuesday in a sign that Syria’s traditionally pro-regime business elite may be beginning to break ranks with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.”

That said, it is important to note this statement from an attendee about the limits of the conference:

“If you want to create a governing body, it has to be done inside Syria,” Hamid said. “We don’t want to create any sense among the protest leaders that we are confiscating their revolution.”

Here are thoughts from Syria Comment, a blog run by Joshua Landis (see people section):

“The young leaders had no patience for the committees and bureaucracy of the older generation. They are getting communication lines in place, developing networks between towns and did not have time for the endless haggling of the older generation.”

“About 70 Kurds showed up which surprised everyone. Also the number of tribal leaders was impressive. They were wearing heir dish dashers and kafiyyas.”

“Another important accomplishment was the establishment of an executive board and an election. They voted on a 31 member executive body, nine of whom will be full time.”

Pro-regime demonstrators also showed up at the conference (from WSJ):

“In Antalya, activists said a handful of pro-regime supporters flown in from Syria harassed people as they arrived at the airport. The pro-regime group tried to enter the conference hotel on Wednesday, activists said, but were held back by Turkish police.”

Here are excerpts from the Final Declaration that the conference released, the full text can be found online.

“… participants agreed to the following:

2-Participants call on president Bashar al-Assad to resign immediately from all of his duties and positions and to hand over authority to his vice-president in accordance with constitutional procedures until the election of a transitional council which will draft and implement a new Syrian constitution that shall call for free and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections within a period not to exceed one year from the resignation of president Bashar al-Assad.

4- Participants affirm that the Syrian people are of many ethnicities, Arab, Kurd, Caldean, Assyrian, Syriac, Turkmen, Chechen, Armenian and others. The conference establishes the legitimate and equal rights of all under a new Syrian constitution based on national unity, civil state and a pluralistic, parlemantary, and democratic regime.

5- Participants commit to exert all efforts towards achieving a democratic future of Syria which respects human rights and protects freedom for all Syrians, including the freedom of belief, expression and practice of religion, under a civil state based on the separation of legislative, judicial and executive powers, while adopting democracy and the ballot box as the sole medium of governance.

7- Participants call on all Arabs, the Organization of Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the International Community to take legal and ethical responsibility in order to stop the violation of human rights and crimes against humanity committed against unarmed civilians, and to support the ambition of the Syrian people of freedom and democracy.”

The conference in Turkey was followed by a slightly smaller one in Brussels aimed at putting pressure on the international community. They directed this statement at the UN Security Council (from Al-Jazeera):

“This critical situation requires immediate and unambiguous action by the United Nations Security Council. The al-Assad regime has shown itself to be illegitimate through its carefully planned and implemented policy of relentless violence against the Syrian people. The international community has a moral and legal responsibility to respond to situations where crimes against humanity are being perpetrated.”

The People

This is a very short list of names that are useful to recognize when discussing Syria. These are the people that most commonly appear in the media, but are by no means the only important actors. Feel free to add to the list in the comments section, but please use a similarly concise format. Some excerpts taken from Foreign Policy Who’s who guide:

Radwan Ziadeh: he is the founder of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. He is currently a visiting scholar at GW, but has spent time at Harvard, Chatam House, USIP and other institutions. Ziadeh often lobbies on behalf of the Syrian opposition at the UN and other international organizations.

Ausama Monajed: is based in Britain, and he connects eyewitnesses on the ground to international media organizations. He runs the facebook group and e-mail list “Syrian Revolution News Round-ups.” He is on the opposition’s Foreign Relations committee.

Wissam Tarif: the Lebanese-born executive director of the international human rights organization Insan, also plays an important role in sifting through the massive stream of videos and firsthand reports coming out of Syria. He can be found on twitter.

Fidaaldin Al-Sayed Issa: the founder of the “Syrian Revolution 2011” Facebook page. He is a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood member who lives in Sweden at the moment. The transcript of an in-depth interview he did can be found here.

Rami Nakhle: having been driven out of Syria, Nakhle now a Beirut based Syrian Internet activist who has was featured in a New York Times article. He is responsible for gathering many of the videos and other media coming out of Syria. Nakhle reportedly picked up many of his tactics from Tunisian and Egyptian activists.

Yaser Tabbara: Tabbara is a Syrian American lawyer based in Chicago. He was the executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Chicago, and is not a leader of the Syrian American Council. His full bio can be found here.

Ahed Hendi: Hendi is the Arabic program coordinator for CyberDissidents.org. He has spent a significant amount of time in prison. Hendi is Syrian and writes for international journals like WSJ, The Beast and Foreign Affairs.

Bouthaina Shaaban: She is one President Assad’s top advisors, and one of its more public faces. Last month the New York Times was granted access to interview her and Rami Makhlouf (top Syrian businessmen and member of Assad family). Shaaban is a former Fulbright Scholar.

Molham Drobi: Canadian based Muslim Brotherhood representative to the Syrian Conference for Change. Appeared as a spokesman in the media.

Imad Moustapha: he is the Syrian Ambassador to the United States. Mr. Moustapha keeps a blog called “Weblog of Syrian Diplomat in America.” He was formerly the Dean of the Faculty of IT at the University of Damascus.

Michel Kilo: Mr. Kilo was a major opposition figure in the first half of the decade. He was a prominent signatory of the Damascus Declaration and spent 3 years in prison as a result. He has been much quieter during the recent uprising, but is at least a proponent of reform. Kilo is one of the few opposition members that have met with the regime.

Maher Assad: He is the younger brother of President Bashar al-Assad. He commands the notoriously loyal Republican Guard and the elite fourth division of the army. He is widely credited with being a main architect of the regime’s crackdown. The Council on Foreign Relations profiles Maher and other Syrian leaders here (produced in 2006).

Andrew Tabler: He is a Syria expert at the Washington Institute, but has spent a significant amount of time in Syria. Tabler was in Syria from 2000-2008 and co-founded Syria Today, the first private sector English language magazine. He also worked for the Syria Trust for Development, which is run by first-lady Asma Assad.

Ammar Abdulhamid: Abdulhamid is one of the more outspoken activists. He is essentially exiled from Syria, and is the founder of the Thawra Foundation. His wife, Khawla Yousef is a human-rights activist, and one of the 31 people elected to the council in Antalya.

Joshua Landis: is the head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the founder and administrator of Syria Comment, one of the most widely read Syrian blogs. He is also a highly sought after Syrian expert in the western media. See this article for more information on Landis and Abdulhamid (above).

Camille Otrakji: is a Syrian political blogger based in Montreal. He is one of the authors and moderators at Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment, and the founder and Syrian Think Tank (an online debate site hosting many of Syria’s top analysts). Otrakji did a widely read interview with the Qifa Nabki blog and a follow up bloggingheads video with its found Elias Muhanna.

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Syrian Government Encouraged Israeli Border Demonstrations

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Mideast Reports just received this leaked document, which, if authentic, confirms the suspicion that Syrian forces were complicit in the Nakba Day protests, when demonstrators broke through the Israeli border in the Golan. As far as we know, these document have not been independently verified.

Syrian Arab Republic                                                                         No.
Office of the Mayor                                                                             Date: May 14, 2011
Al-Qunaitera Province

Top Secret

After an urgent meeting convened by the security committee on Saturday in the presence of the Mayor of al-Qunaitera, Major General Asef Shawkat -Deputy Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces-, and chiefs of security and military (intelligence) branches in the province, the following was decided:

1-   All security, military, and contingent units in the province, Ain-el-Tina and the old al-Qunaitera are hereby ordered to grant permission of passage to all twenty vehicles (47 passenger capacity) with the attached plate numbers that are scheduled to arrive at ten in the morning on Sunday May 15, 2011 without being questioned or stopped until it reaches or frontier defense locations.

2-   Permission is hereby granted allowing approaching crowds to cross the cease fire line (with Israel) towards the occupied Majdal-Shamms, and to further allow them to engage physically with each other in front of United Nations agents and offices. Furthermore, there is no objection if a few shots are fired in the air.

3-   Captain Samer Shahin from the military intelligence division is hereby appointed to the leadership of the group assigned to break-in and infiltrate deep into the occupied Syrian Golan Heights with a specified pathway to avoid land mines.

4-   It is essential to ensure that no one carries military identification or a weapon as they enter with a strict emphasis on the peaceful and spontaneous nature of the protest.

5-   The provincial security committee meeting is considered in constant deliberation in coordination with the Center.

May you be the source of prosperity for the nation and the party


Dr. Khalil Mash-hadiya

Mayor of Al-Qunaitera’s

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