December 31, 2011

Syrians Daring al-Assad To Shoot

They heard that Syria’s situation isn’t “frightening.” They hear themselves branded as "terrorists" for a crime that they may be innocent of. Syrians decided to prove both accusations wrong on Friday, massing in enormous demonstrations across oppositional territory and daring Bashar al-Assad to shoot in front of the Arab League’s monitors.

Sadly, his soldiers did.

By the day’s end an estimated 35 casualties had been reported in Idlib, Homs, Hama, Deraa, and Douma. This assault stretches the battlefield 200+ miles from north to south, creating an unrealistic space for the League’s observers to cover. Half of Syria could qualify as “revolting” in various degrees, an area that would encompass some 30,000 square miles - leaving 150 monitors to cover 200 square miles each.

At least nine more protesters were killed on Saturday. The street-oriented Local Coordination Committees at least 140 casualties since AL personnel arrived on the 22nd.

Bloodshed aside, Syrians are ready to move while the League’s presence lasts (one month, plus an option on a second). They also have no choice in the absence of foreign media, and drawing an absolute line against the regime is vital to their struggle. For months al-Assad has demeaned the opposition as “terrorists,” fed upon the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) insurgency, and accused foreign militants of instigating Syria’s revolution. This smear campaign recently culminated with a dual bombing in Damascus hours before the League’s arrival. Five minutes hadn’t passed when Syrian officials “revealed” a joint-attack by the opposition and al-Qaeda.

Activist Abu Khaled told Reuters, "We are deter
mined to show them (the monitors) we exist. Whether or not there's bloodshed is not important.”

For now al-Assad’s AL shield remains operational, albeit dented. Themselves caught in a political settlement with his regime, League officials got off to a rocky start by downplaying Syria’s violence and “getting good cooperation from the government.” The initial “reassuring” assessment by Sudanese General Mustafa al-Dabi, the mission’s commander, was parroted by Russia and China as a sign of al-Assad’s goodwill. Fronting a backdrop of “massive spontaneous gatherings” against the League’s “intervention,” al-Dabi’s statements and background have already triggered oppositional calls to replace him.The League’s most “assuring” moment came late Friday, when one observer found himself surrounded by residents in Deraa. Naturally al-Assad won’t give up the Damascus-centric south easily, but this reward naturally increases the risk. Speaking with local residents, the monitor was quoted as responding, “You're telling me there are snipers? You don't have to tell me, I saw them with my own eyes."

"We're going to ask the government to remove them immediately. We'll be in touch with the Arab League back in Cairo. If the snipers are not gone in 24 hours, then there will be other measures taken."

Yet the phrasing of this warning gives the impression that al-Assad can simply remove and redeploy them, and state media rejected “reports of biased satellite channels” on Saturday. Furthermore, al-Dabi went public to “clarify” that “this man said that if he saw - by his own eyes - those snipers he will report immediately. But he didn't see [snipers]."

It should be noted that the Sudanese general allegedly denies saying that he didn’t see anything “frightening.”

A dramatic softening in al-Assad’s iron fist is unlikely to follow the last 10 days of brutality; his tactics are far more likely to conform around the League’s monitors. Live rounds will be watered down with additional tear gas, rubber bullets and other non-lethal measures, and large-scale assaults will be avoided in the League’s presence. Knowing each monitor’s location is no less important than shadowing them for intimidation purposes, and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights counted 27 casualties in areas where no monitors were present.

One activist, Omar Idlibi, explained how al-Assad’s forces "pulled the tanks from the main streets as the team was passing by the area. They brought them back after the monitors left. This regime is maneuvering to cover up realities on the ground.”

Al-Assad undoubtedly intends to manipulate and outlast the League’s mission for two months and send them home packing. Then, like a tank pulled down an alley, government forces can reemerge for a wider crackdown.

The League’s main benefits to the opposition will come from what protesters and the revolutionary leadership make of their visit. Haytham Manna, a Paris-based dissident and spokesman for the Arab Commission for Human Rights, told The Associated Press. "Whether we like it or not, the presence of observers has had a positive psychological effect, encouraging people to stage peaceful protests...” Protesters must increase their political organization maintain a consistent energy throughout the League’s tour, as they cannot rely on the League’s good intentions to stop al-Assad’s assault.

Syria’s National Council (SNC) and National Coordination Committee (NCC) took a step in the right direction on Friday night by drafting a joint roadmap in Cairo. The opposition’s primary networks have experienced friction over key issues, including al-Assad’s immunity and Western intervention, but they must operate in tandem to overcome al-Assad’s regime.

They must also prepare for a future showdown over Riad al-Asaad’s potential contact with League officials. The FSA’s commander recently ordered a halt to all non-defensive actions “to prove that there are no armed gangs in Syria,” but the League has yet to accept his invitation to meet. The SNC, NCC and Local Coordination Committees need to put the next phase of their strategy into effect as soon as an irreversible breakdown occurs.

No more time than necessary can be wasted in the Arab League’s diplomacy, bureaucracy and deception with al-Assad’s regime.

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