Unrest Spreads to Syria/ Escalation Around Gaza

Mar 29, 2011

Update from AIJAC

March 25, 2011

Number 02/11 #07

There is so much currently going on in the Middle East that this Update cannot hope to provide information and analysis on all of it. It will concentrate, therefore, on the possibly highly significant outbreak of widespread unrest in Syria, and the growing Israeli-Palestinian violence, especially around Gaza.

We begin with a report on the unrest in Syria from Roee Nahmias, an Israeli journalist specialising in Lebanon and Syria. He points out the current unrest is the most significant in Syria since the Hama massacre of 1982, and the first time Bashar al-Assad has had to use significant force to put down opposition, and thus a test of his willingness to shed blood. Nahmias says that what would most threaten the regime is if the people have lost their fear of the regime, but it is too early to tell if that is the case. For all his analysis,  CLICK HERE. Up to date material on the protests in Syria from opposition sources is constantly being posted by American thinktanker Michael Ledeen.

Next up, Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute looks at the wider context of what is occurring in Syria. He discusses the details of the protests around Deraa and their potential to spread, and the regime’s resilience in the face of a popular uprising compared to Tunisia or Egypt, thanks to the solidarity of the ruling Alawite minority. Finally, he offers advice for policmakers designed to both maximise chances for positive reforms in Syria and to gain serious Syrian engagement in a peace process with Israel. For his detailed arguments, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Syria is now offering some reforms, as well as economic handouts, in a bid to blunt the protest movement.

Finally, Khaled Abu Toameh, Arab Affairs reporter at the Jerusalem Post, looks at the motivation for the massive escalation of rocket attacks and other violence from Gaza over the past week (details of this escalation here, here and here). Toameh argues that Hamas is primarily motivated by a fear of the facebook-based Palestinian movement for national unity which has led to large protests in Gaza and the West Bank in recent weeks, and sparked an offer from PA President Mahmoud Abbas to come to Gaza which made Hamas very apprehensive. He says the under-reported crackdown on the media in Gaza by Hamas is part of the same campaign against allowing regional unrest to spread to Gaza. For the full piece, CLICK HERE. There was also of course a bombing attack on a Jerusalem bus stop , which killed one person and injured dozens, on Wednesday as well, the first such attack in some time.

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Assad’s first true test

After 10 years in power, Syrian leader needs to use substantive force against dissidents

Roee Nahmias

Published:     03.20.11, 23:11

First, a word of caution: All reports about the protests in Syria must be met with reservations and caution because of the media blackout that characterises Syria regularly. Moreover, we must keep in mind that one of the main channels providing information on Syria is opposition groups, which are interested in playing up the protests to the point of making them seem larger than they are. Nonetheless, over the weekend we’ve seen a little history made in Syria.

Third day of unrest in southern city of Deraa; thousands of protesters demand to dismantle secret police, dismiss governor, hold public trial for those behind killings of demonstrators; activists say dozens hurt after security forces open fire
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The images that illustrated this most of all were revealed when, for the first time in many years, the Syrian regime dispatched gunships to meet protests by unarmed civilians. The choppers were documented in the southern city of Dara’a, where several demonstrators were killed.

Yet this wasn’t the only history that was made. Small rallies were indeed held in Syria in recent weeks, but as opposed to the relatively limited, modest protests we’ve seen previously, a larger mass of demonstrators came out in Dara’a. On Saturday, thousands gathered at funerals in the city, while chanting “We shall liberate you with spirit and blood, martyr.”

According to testimonials and videos, thousands hit the streets after Friday prayers and during Saturday’s funerals. These rallies prompted major intervention by Syrian security forces, live fire and the utilization of helicopters, leading to five fatalities according to a few sources (and a much higher toll according to Syrian opposition websites.)

However, the number of participants in protests across Syria is not the only criterion. The boldness displayed by demonstrators and speakers over the weekend warrants special attention.
Kurdish uprising in cards?

And so, for example, Dara’a’s local preacher Ahmad al-Siasna told the masses Saturday that the obligation to come out and protest is a Muslim duty that applies to every individual. “Every Syrian capable of doing it must do so. Inaction would be considered as betraying the blood of the martyrs,” he said. Meanwhile, opposition websites reported that security forces beat al-Siasna up and humiliated him after he refused to urge the protestors to calm down.

Elsewhere, it was reported that tribal leaders in the Dara’a region issued a threatening message whereby should the Syrian army not withdraw its troops from the area, they shall set police stations and intelligence branches on fire. “The regime must withdraw from the city, pull back the tanks and put an end to aerial incursions. We also demand the release of all detainees,” an announcement also published in Facebook read.

Syrian opposition elements issued announcements on various websites and social networks, urging the masses to continue the protests in several Syrian towns. “We ask you to take part in the protests in all districts, in order to mark a day of uprising in most Syrian cities,” the statement read. Opposition sources confirmed the report to Ynet.

Syria’s security apparatuses are alert and especially fearful of the Kurdish minority, which officials estimate may rise up. Meanwhile, human rights groups reported a major wave of arrests in several Syrian cities following the protests. All the testimonies show that the protests in Syria over the weekend were the most serious and significant ones to be faced by the regime in many years. It is possible that even opposition elements were surprised by the resonance, given earlier uncertainty.
Nonetheless, the question in Syria now is whether the genie of losing one’s fear of the regime is indeed out of the bottle. For the time being, there is no unequivocal answer. Should we discover that things are indeed moving in this direction, President Bashar Assad shall face a more serious challenge in the near future.

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Syria Protests Call for Strong U.S. Stance

By Andrew J. Tabler

PolicyWatch #1786, March 24, 2011

March 24 marked the sixth straight day of protests against Syria’s Bashar al-Asad regime in and around the southern city of Deraa, where the regime crackdown thus far has claimed at least sixteen lives, with unconfirmed reports putting that number much higher. As the death toll mounts, the issue of the moment is whether the protests, unprecedented under Asad and the largest since those that sparked the Hama massacre of 1982, could spread to other parts of Syria on Friday, March 25, when dissidents are calling for a “Day of Rage.”

To date, Washington has only condemned the continuing protests and vicious repression. Given Syria’s bad track record on domestic reform, however, the United States needs to develop clear benchmarks and time lines on domestic reforms, complete with negative consequences, if Washington hopes to achieve U.S. policy goals of universal rights for Syrians and, eventually, a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty.


The residents of Deraa, part of a key Sunni constituency traditionally loyal to the Asad regime, have engaged in protests since March 15. The protests were instigated when security officials arrested a group of children ages ten to fourteen for scrawling “The people want the fall of the regime” on a wall — a slogan seen widely in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. After failing to convince the regime to release the children, their families flooded the streets of Deraa to demand their release. The regime responded with force on March 18, killing six and injuring scores of others.

On March 21, the regime sent a delegation of high-level officials native to Deraa, including Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, to engage with local tribal leaders and quell the violence. While the children were released and Deraa’s governor was sacked, the regime continued to use force to disperse demonstrators on March 22, killing another six. High numbers of unconfirmed deaths, ranging between thirty and a hundred, may owe to the regime’s refusal of medical treatment for wounded protestors holed up in Deraa’s Omari mosque. While the protests have been non-Islamist in nature, on March 23 protestors also chanted, “No to Iran, No to Hizballah — We want a leader who fears God!” The latter of these slogans constituted a reference to the Asad family’s roots in the Alawite faith, a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam that dominates the Syrian regime.

Perhaps more notable than the scale of the protests is the protestors’ demographic base. This month’s protests broke out in Syria’s southern Houran region, whose tribal Sunni population has been — as in the city of Deraa — traditionally loyal to the Asad regime. Elsewhere in the country, for hundreds of years, tensions have flared between Syria’s Alawite community and its Sunni majority. The flash point for this simmering conflict occurred in February 1982, when the Sunni-based Muslim Brotherhood threw the Asad regime’s security forces out of the northern Syrian city of Hama. The regime responded by shelling the city, killing an estimated 30,000 people and arresting thousands of suspected Muslim Brotherhood supporters all across Syria, many of whose whereabouts remain unknown to this day.

To stabilize the regime, Bashar’s father, Hafiz, enacted two major measures. First, he changed the justification for the country’s Emergency Law, which had been enacted in March 1963 due to domestic instability, to Syria’s state of war with Israel. This reasoning boosted regime support among the country’s majority Sunni population, which has traditionally sided with the Palestinian cause. Second, Asad gave his regime a veneer of Sunni legitimacy by co-opting tribal Sunnis from the Houran region and the Jazeera region of eastern Syria to join the regime’s core of Alawites, Druze, Ismailis, and Christians; these four groups collectively make up about a quarter of the Syrian population.

This week’s protests in Deraa threaten to crack that Sunni veneer. There are signs that Jazeerites may be joining the fray as well. Following sporadic protests in the region’s capital city of Deir Ez Zour last week, Ali Aissa Ubadi, claiming to represent sixty tribes announced a “rebellion against the (Asad) regime” on March 22.

Will It Spread?

With the regime returning the bodies of the dead to their families for burial, there is intense speculation as to whether the protests in and around Deraa will escalate. With each funeral, the risk of anti-regime violence increases, threatening to set the Houran region on fire and further erode a key base of support for the regime among the country’s majority Sunni population.

Speculation is also intense that the protests could spread to other parts of Syria following the March 25 Friday prayers, including major cities in western Syria. On March 22-24, sporadic but small protests have occurred in Banias, Damascus, and Homs, but thus far have not led to the same kind of violence currently raging in Deraa. Speculation that Syria’s historically oppressed Kurdish population, which has animosity toward the regime, would rise up on March 21 in celebration of Nairouz, the Kurdish New Year, proved unfounded.

In an attempt to quell the uprising, Bouthaina Shaaban, a key political advisor to President Asad, announced on March 24 that the regime would form a committee to “study” the ending of the forty-seven-year Emergency Law in Syria — a key demand of protestors in Deraa and throughout Syria. Shaaban also announced that the regime would soon issue a draft for a political parties law, increase workers salaries, and take measures to alleviate unemployment in Syria.

It remains unclear if such steps will be enough to satisfy protestors in Deraa or people across Syria. One reason to the contrary is that the Syrian people may not believe Shaaban, especially given that previous promises by the regime to enact the same reforms have gone unfulfilled. During the last Baath Party conference in June 2005, Shaaban, then minister of expatriates and conference spokesperson, promised the very same measures would be reviewed — to no avail.

Escalating protests could weaken the Asad regime’s stability, though raging protests may not bring it down altogether. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where the militaries have some degree of independence from the regime, the minority networks around the Asad regime overlap between the military and the security bodies. A number of Syrian military officers hail from the Houran region, which could threaten Sunni representation in the military. But the fear by Alawites and other minorities that a fall of the Asad regime would lead to a massacre by vengeful Sunnis could protect the Asad regime from military defections that were necessary to ending regime rule in Tunisia and Egypt.

Implications for U.S. Policy

The unrest has deep implications for U.S. policy. The Obama administration has based its Syria policy on facilitating peace talks between Syria and Israel. A major cog in that premise was that a large part of Asad’s legitimacy rested on his piecemeal effort to “reform” Syria. This week’s protests have called that legitimacy into serious question. The question now remains as to how — or whether — a minority leader with a narrowing domestic base and severely compromised domestic legitimacy rooted in a proven inability to launch real reforms will be able to abandon Syria’s state of war with Israel.

Over the last two years, the Obama administration has kept U.S. sanctions on Syria in place, but has not introduced new “negative incentives” or pressures to cajole Asad into changing his policies. The hope behind this position has been that peace talks between Syria and Israel were imminent. So far, those efforts, however sincere, have not borne fruit. While attempts to focus on the Syria track should not be abandoned, the time has come for Washington to develop a hybrid policy in two senses: first, by denouncing human rights abuses in Syria as well as promoting the peace process, and second, by introducing negative incentives into the mix of engaging Syria in the peace process. More than anything, this week’s protests show that Asad only truly changes tack when he is under pressure and facing dilemmas.

Thus far, the Asad regime has refused to accept Washington’s criticism of its record on human rights and democracy. This month’s protests provide Washington with the opportunity to reiterate calls for universal freedoms — whether Damascus likes it or not. On March 24, the State Department condemned the “Syrian government’s brutal repression of demonstrations, in particular the violence and killings of civilians at the hands of security forces,” and also said, “Those responsible for the violence must be held accountable.” To achieve this, and to ensure that Asad follows through with his promises to enact domestic reforms, the United States should publicly pressure the regime to respect human rights and political freedoms, and institute rule of law in the country. Washington’s best means to pressure Damascus are U.S. sanctions , specifically Treasury department designations of regime members found responsible for human rights abuses during the regime’s crackdown. It should also work with Western allies and Turkey to pressure Asad diplomatically to institute domestic reforms with clear benchmarks and timetables as a peaceful path out of the crisis. By holding the Asad regime accountable for its commitments, Washington has the best hope for influencing Asad’s domestic policies for the better, avoiding further bloodshed, and fostering a real peace between Syria and Israel.

Andrew J. Tabler is a Next Generation fellow at The Washington Institute and author of the forthcoming book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria (Lawrence Hill Books, 2011).

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Hamas attacks aimed as diversion from internal issues


Jerusalem Post, 03/19/2011 20:30

Analysis: Mortar attacks are aimed at dragging Israel into a military offensive that is needed by Hamas to rally the Palestinian public behind it.

The mortar attacks on Israel over the weekend were designed to divert attention from Hamas’s growing problems inside the Gaza Strip. The Hamas leadership has been under heavy pressure as a result of mass demonstrations in the Gaza Strip demanding an end to the Hamas-Fatah dispute.

After failing to prevent the protests, Hamas authorities began cracking down on the organizers, political foes and journalists.

Hamas believes that the demonstrations are being organized by Fatah as part of an attempt to undermine the Islamist movement.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum on Saturday accused Fatah and its allies of exploiting the calls for Palestinian unity to destabilize the situation in the Gaza Strip.

The first sign of Hamas’s increased nervousness was evident last week when dozens of the movement’s undercover police officers attacked thousands of demonstrators who were participating in a Facebook- initiated rally to demand Palestinian unity.

At least 50 demonstrators were injured, including eight local journalists.

On Saturday, Hamas again targeted journalists, raiding press offices and confiscating cameras, laptops and other equipment.

Sources in Gaza City said the Hamas policemen stormed the offices of CNN, Reuters and a Japanese TV station.

Three Palestinian journalists were beaten with clubs, the sources said. They identified the three as Sami Abu Salem, Manal Hasan and Munzer al-Sharafi.

The Hamas crackdown on journalists is seen as an attempt to prevent further coverage of daily protests throughout the Gaza Strip.

Hamas’s actions indicate that the movement, which has been controlling the Gaza Strip since 2007, is afraid that the current wave of popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world will hit the Strip.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement last week that he was prepared to visit the Gaza Strip for reconciliation talks with Hamas leaders is another source of concern for the movement.

Hamas fears that Abbas’s visit to the Gaza Strip would drive tens of thousands of Palestinians to take to the streets to greet him and demand an end to the Hamas-Fatah power struggle.

Ironically, an IDF operation in the Gaza Strip will undoubtedly ease the internal pressure on Hamas. The mortar attacks are aimed at dragging Israel into a military offensive that is needed by Hamas to divert attention from its problems and rally the Palestinian public behind it.

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