2011-03-31 Maher al-Assad and the family business #Syria

ImageReuters reports that Syria will set up an investigation into the protest deaths, as well as form a committee to “solve the problem of the 1962 census” during which 150,000 Syrian Kurds were denied nationality. It is doubtful that an investigation will be regarded as hopeful by protesters whoblame the violence on Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian president, one of his closest advisors and head of the Republican Guard.

While Bashar al-Assad is the public face of Syrian governance, his brother is in charge of the security forces that provide Syria with one of the worst human rights and press freedoms records in the world. One of the many things he is commonly accused of is shooting his brother-in-law Asef Shawket (Directory of Military Intelligence) in the stomach. Along with Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Bashar and Maher al-Assad who controls much of the Syrian business (including SyriaTel) and foreign investment and is under US sanctions for public corruption, Maher is also suspected of public corruption. A video circulating shows a group of dead bodies and what it says is “the killers, or the killer himself, it shows President Bashar Al-Assad’s Brother (Maher Al-Assad) with his personal guards walking over the raped apart bodies and taking pictures with their cell phones.” (at 1:05). While there is no indication of the circumstances of the deaths and there could be many reasons for the picture taking, Maher al-Assad is a hated and feared public figure. While many people can still be found to defend president Bashar al-Assad, there are few defenders for Maher al-Assad, brother in law Asef Shawket, or cousin Rami Makhlouf who between them control the military, intelligence and commerce. And for the protesters who have been saying since the beginning that their protest is not against the president but against the security forces and the emergency law, it is Maher al-Assad and his brother in law Asef Shawket they are referring to.

Maher al-Assad is also reportedly one of the prime suspects in the investigation into the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Now Lebanon reported on February 17: Former Syrian intelligence operative Mohammad Zuhair Siddiq held an interview with the Voice of Lebanon (100.5) radio station on Thursday in which he revealed who Mr. X – previously mentioned in former United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) chief Detlev Mehlis’s first report to the UN Security Council – is. “I have a recording which is exclusive to the investigation committee. People have to know why [Speaker] Nabih Berri closed the parliament for more than seven months. Lebanese people have to know the truth, which is more important than the investigation.” Siddiq then played part of an audio recording in which a man tells another “Summon the [men] quickly for an emergency meeting. We will [terminate] him.” A man responds by saying that “Berri’s political aide Ali Hassan Khalil and [Hezbollah official] Wafiq Safa arrived.” Siddiq said that the man calling for a meeting in the recording is Maher al-Assad – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brother.

While rumours that Bashar al-Assad heads a puppet government that is or may soon be controlled by Asef Shawket have circulated for years, rumours of Maher al-Assad possibly gaining control have become more prevalent this month. A Chirpstory on Twitter records some of the online rumours (Asef Shawket was not killed by the rumoured shooting).


2011-03-30 Assad’s speech days late, no reforms, more attacks on protesters #Syria

Continuing his customary practice of promises unfulfilled, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad delivered a speech today that was expected days ago and delivered none of the hoped forconcessions to protesters. The speech is here, English transcript is here.

Reports online are that after the speech a peaceful protest in Latakia was fired upon. A general commanded that the protesters be shot at. The army would not leave the civilians, they dragged away the bodies of the killed. I saw with my own eyes the bullet shells, I took and kept two in my bag as evidence. They said the security forces shot with automatic weapons. They said the bullets and weapons were Kalashnikovs. Very graphic video reportedly of today’s violence has been posted here. An Al Jazeera report from Syria paints a chilling prelude scene before their reporter was turned away. The reporter found a colonel looking down a long range rifle scope at a checkpoint set up with a view of the future protest scene, while everyone was still listening to Assad’s speech and the street was empty.

list is being maintained of people imprisoned, missing and killed since the protests began. This very valuable work shows the name, date, occasionally picture, age, location, circumstance and source for each incident. The total number on the list is now at 275.

After Assad’s speech, Syrian state TV showed footage of Assad in Damascus, the site of yesterday’s hugely supportive rallies for him, only this time his army of security appeared breached by a rush from the crowd before the TV cut away. Report from News Tsar below.

Excerpts from the TRCB News translation:

I know that the Syrian people have been waiting for this speech since last week; and I intentionally postponed it until I have a fuller picture in my mind, or at least some of the main features of this picture, so that my speech should depart from the emotional rhetoric which puts people at ease, but does not change anything or make any impact at a time when our enemies work every day in an organized, systematic and scientific manner in order to undermine Syria’s stability.

Protests are a foreign conspiracy

Our policies had been based on development, opening up, and communicating directly between myself and the Syrian people.

Syrian foreign policy is based on holding to our national rights.

Syria is facing a great conspiracy whose tentacles extend to some nearby countries and far-away countries, with some inside the country.

Some satellite T.V. stations actually spoke about attacking certain buildings an hour before they were actually attacked. How did they know that? Do they read the future? This happened more than once. Then, things started to become clearer. They will say that we believe in the conspiracy theory. In fact there is no conspiracy theory. There is a conspiracy.

We are concerned with the outcome because the last stage for them is for Syria to get weaker and disintegrate, because this will remove the last obstacle facing the Israel?s plans.

They used the satellite T.V. stations and the internet but did not achieve anything. And then, using sedition, started to produce fake information, voices, images, etc. they forged everything. Then they started to use the sectarian element. They sent SMSs to members of a certain sect alerting them that another sect will attack them. And in order to be credible, they sent masked people to neighborhoods with different sects living in them, knocking on people?s doors and telling each that that the other sect has already attacked and are on the streets, in order to get a reaction. And it worked for a while. But we were able to nip the sedition in the bud by getting community leaders to meet and diffuse the situation. Then they used weapons. They started killing people at random; because they knew when there is blood it becomes more difficult to solve the problem.

Reforms will continue at the same glacial pace

If we say that [reforms] were made under the pressure of a certain condition or popular pressure, this is weakness. And I believe that if the people get the government to bow under pressure, it will bow to foreign pressure. The principle is wrong. The relationship between the government and the people is not that of pressure or based on pressure.

I will quickly review the reform process since 2000. It is true that we talked about this at the time but only in headlines. The picture was not very clear about the shape of that reform. Two months after the speech I gave in this magnificent place, the Intifada happened and the conspiracy against the resistance started, and pressures mounted. Then there was 09/11. Islam, Muslims, and Arabs were all accused. There was the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Syria was supposed to pay a price for its position to invasion. You know what happened in Lebanon in 2005, and later the war of 2006 and its repercussions, and the war against Gaza at the end of 2008. So, the whole period was that of continued pressure. What added to the problems was that we had four years of drought which damaged our economic program.

We did not focus much on political issues like the emergency law and the party law. The reason is that when there are human issues at stake, they cannot be postponed.

… putting a time frame is purely technical. I might put a time frame which is shorter than what is necessary and in that case the pressure of time will affect quality. I think our duty is to provide the Syrian people with the best, not with the fastest. We want to proceed quickly, but we do not want to be hasty.

Protesters will be fought

The Holy Quran says, sedition is worse than killing, so all those involved intentionally or unintentionally in it contribute to destroying their country. So there is no compromise or middle way in this. What is at stake is the homeland and there is a huge conspiracy. We are not seeking battles. The Syrian people are peaceful people, loving people, but we have never hesitated in defending our causes, interests and principles, and if we are forced into a battle, so be it.


2011-03-29 Syrian government resigns, president Bashar al-Assad stays

There are many online reports again that say Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will address the country tomorrow, and that he will make an announcement “that will please the Syrian people”. In the meantime, he has accepted the resignation of the Syrian government, the latest in a series of reforms this week which do not include the protesters’ demands of an end to the 48 year old emergency law, a drastic reduction of domestic security powers, freedom for all political prisoners and a disclosure of the fate of tens of thousands of protesters who disappeared in the 1980’s. The Syrian government do not possess much power, most still resides with Assad, his family, and the vicious and powerful security forces. The resigning premier has been appointed by Assad as caretaker prime minister and a new government is expected to be appointed by Assad within 24 hours.

Daraa and Lattakia are still having huge protests against the government, while in Damascus Al Jazeera is showing large crowds (variously described in the same article and embedded video as thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and “perhaps even millions”) waving flags and posters in support of Assad. As reported by France24, schoolchildren and government workers were given time off to attend the pro Assad rally. Russia Today has a good video which shows first the huge pro-Assad rally in Damascus which all the major news media not yet evicted from the country were brought to watch, and second the very different and violent protests happening in other regions.

Protests in Daraa shown below. Silmya.org has compiled a list of the 100 martyrs they say have died so far in the Syrian protests. Human Rights Watch earlier reported at least 61 confirmed by them as being killed in these protests.

2011-03-27 #London: “No government would change in response to 500,000 protesters”

The London demonstrations yesterday, where a reported 500,000 people took to the streets to protest the austerity cuts, will not change government strategy according to Liberal democrat minister Vince Cable. “No government – coalition, Labour or any other – would change its fundamental economic policy simply in response to a demonstration of that kind,” he said.

Police arrested 201 people and charged 149 according to the BBC. Police reported that 145 of the arrests were in connection with the group UK Uncut, which occupied luxury grocery store Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly in protest over alleged tax avoidance by the business’s part owners. BBC is reporting 84 injuries, including at least 31 police, with 11 officers requiring hospital treatment.

UK Uncut has posted alternatives to the government’s austerity measures:

One alternative is to clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and the rich, estimated to cost the state £95bn a year

Another is to make the banks pay for a crisis they created: last year they paid out over £7bn in bonuses and just four banks made £24bn in profit

The tax avoided and evaded in a single year could pay for the £81bn, four-year cuts programme.

2011-03-27 Anti Gaddafi forces claim Sirte, advance on Tripoli #Libya

The Libyan foreign intervention will pass from the US led force to NATO command, led by Canadian General Charles Bouchard, with the transition completing “within 48 hours”.

The anti-Gaddafi forces are once more moving west at a rapid pace, currently claiming to control Sirte, the home of Muammar Gaddafi. Shamsi Abdul Molah, a spokesman for the opposition’s National Council, told Al Jazeera that opposition forces had moved into the city at approximately 11.30pm Sunday night. Now AFP is reporting nine powerful explosions heard in Sirte.

Al Jazeera has reported that anti Gaddafi forces are now in control of Bin Jawad, Ras Lanuf, Uqayla, Brega and Ajdabiya, and they say Gaddafi forces are retreating and surrendering each town without a fight. Anti-Gaddafi forces expect a major battle in Tripoli, where Muammar Gaddafi was reported to be Sunday night, since they did not meet with one in Sirte. Fighting broke out again in Misurata, which has been heavily attacked from the air by French and British forces. Air strikes were also reported on Tripoli, Tarhunah, Sabha and Sirte.

UN / NATO air strikes continued in Tripoli Sunday night. Libyan officials said on Sundaythat nearly 100 civilians had been killed by foreign forces. “The terror people live in, the fear, the tension is everywhere. And these are civilians who are being terrorised every day,” said Mussa Ibrahim, a Libyan government spokesman. “We believe the unnecessary continuation of the air strikes is a plan to put the Libyan government in a weak negotiating position. NATO is prepared to kill people, destroy army training camps and army checkpoints and other locations. … (Western nations) are starving the Libyan population, (they want) to put Libya on its knees, to beg for mercy. It’s a very simple plan. We can see it happening in front of our eyes. They are not trying to protect civilians.”

Al Jazeera has posted some extremely upsetting and graphic video from houses that were bombed.

AFP’s report on the advance of anti Gaddafi forces below.

Previous WL Central coverage on Libya.

2011-03-27 Secret police, special forces and now the army defend Assad’s rule in #Syria

President Bashar al-Assad deployed the army in Latakia today. Until now secret police and special forces have been primarily responsible for quelling the protests this week and killing a large number of protesters, at least 61 according to Human Rights Watch. Exact numbers have been difficult to obtain because of the news blackout imposed in the country, but SANA is reporting 12 killed yesterday in Latakia. Unofficial reports are much higher, but the international news media is being prevented from reporting.

Reuters is reporting two television journalists missing in Syria since Saturday, after “On Friday, Syrian authorities withdrew the accreditation of Reuters text correspondent Khaled Yacoub Oweis, saying he had filed “unprofessional and false” coverage of events in Syria.” Al Jazeera had their Sana’a bureau raided on March 22 after an earlier expulsion of two Al-Jazeera correspondents and six other international journalists.

Relative calm is being reported today despite a sit in at the Omari Mosque in Deraa where at least six people were killed on the 23rd. Government officials announced Assad was to make a televised address today, but he has not appeared.

On Saturday, 260 political prisoners were released by the government, and they are now joined by political activist Diana Jawabra, and 15 others who were charged with taking part in a silent protest demanding the release of schoolchildren arrested for scrawling graffiti. The government has also committed to “studying” an end to emergency law and proposing draft laws that would grant greater freedoms in the media and the formation of political parties.

Protesters are not at all appeased by these or promises of other reforms, very familiar to them after years of promises and no results from Assad. They are demanding an end to the emergency law, a drastic reduction of domestic security powers, freedom for all political prisoners and a disclosure of the fate of tens of thousands of protesters who disappeared in the 1980’s. Some of the imprisoned human rights defenders are profiled on the Haitham Maleh Foundation website.

Syrian state media is calling the protesters “armed troops, backed by foreigners, attempting to incite sectarian violence” a description familiar to any who have watched protests in any other countries in the region.

Damascus and other cities have also seen demonstrations in support of Assad this week.

Previous WL Central coverage on Syria.