May 27, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 692

Syrian Oppositionists: We're Getting No Support for Our Struggle Against the Regime

May 27, 2011 | By N. Mozes*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 692


After two months of violent unrest in Syria, and despite the erosion of its status in the region among the Arab countries, and in the international arena,[1] it appears that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has so far managed to contain the protests, or, at the very least, to keep them from spreading. This is due, inter alia, to the harsh security measures, including the cordoning off cities and areas where protests are taking place, as well as key areas, such as Damascus; the violent dispersal of protests using tanks and snipers; sweeping arrests; and a media blackout on the unrest.

The regime is also attempting to win over the street, or at least to keep support for sympathizers at home to a minimum by delegitimizing the protests on the claim that they are being carried out by extremist Islamist elements linked to an international conspiracy to harm Syria; by promising reforms; and by portraying itself as willing to engage in national dialogue. It is also offering economic benefits and is strengthening ties with tribal dignitaries and leaders across the country.

As the Syrian regime faces its toughest challenge since the Hama massacre in the 1980s, oppositionists in Syria and abroad are attacking the international community, the Arab League, the Syrian intelligentsia, and the Syrian media, which they blame for allowing the regime to continue in its violent repression.

Disappointment with International and Arab Community

The Syrian oppositionists have been harshly critical of the international community for its feeble and slow response to the events in the country. The recent U.S. and E.U. sanctions against senior Syrian officials are perceived as ineffective, by oppositionists and the regime alike; indeed, the regime has been dealing with similar measures for many years.[2]

Disappointment in the U.S.'s Position vis-à-vis the Protests

Mubarak Muhammad Al-Hajri, columnist for the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai, lambasted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying: "From her recent statements, it would seem that [Clinton] is amazed at the Ba'th regime in Syria, noting that it was different from and more progressive than the regime of Libyan madman Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi. Mrs. Clinton sees with her own eyes the Syrian people being murdered and crushed – yet expresses no sorrow over the crimes of the Ba'th [regime] there. All she has asked was for it to show restraint – as if she were speaking to the Israeli government, which Her Majesty [Clinton] is accustomed to advising, and not to the dictatorial Ba'th government that has been ruling Syria by force for 40 years, its vocabulary devoid of the word 'freedom.'

"What have we come to?... Is this a world where the law of the jungle rules? Millions of people see the U.S. as a land of law and democracy – yet through its secretary of state, it supports, with unprecedented blatancy, a bloody regime that has shed the blood of its own people in order to survive on the throne a little longer. Is this the same U.S. that claims to defend human rights and to support democracies and revolutions calling to realize [these rights]?...

"The U.S. knows full well that the Syrian regime's record is as black and grim as the night. It is ignoring what [Syria] did in Lebanon, where it planted the armed [organization] Hizbullah, rendering it a threat to the security and wellbeing of Lebanon and the region [in general]..."[3]

Prominent Syrian dissident in exile Mamoun Al-Homsi said, in a similar vein: "The [American] silence in light of what is happening in Syria, its delay and diverse criteria in dealing with the dictatorships have [all] strengthened the Syrian regime's ability to suppress the revolution."[4]

Syrian Oppositionists: France Is Responsible for the Situation in Syria

Some held France, and in particular its president, Nicolas Sarkozy, responsible for the events in Syria. The head of Syria's National Organization of Human Rights, Dr. 'Ammar Al-Qurabi, said that France was "chiefly responsible for what is happening in Syria, because Sarkozy is the one who made Syria into an accepted member of the international [community] at a time when it was internationally isolated and diplomatically besieged. Sarkozy visited Damascus and hosted [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad in Paris. Now, he cannot restrain the violence in Syria and cannot get Bashar Al-Assad to make any concessions regarding democracy and human rights. France's current position is a media position, rather than a political or practical position... The international community must pressure Damascus to fulfill its international obligations. There are [various means to persuade it, including] fact-finding commissions, U.N. resolutions, and international courts. If this is considered intervention in Syria's domestic affairs, then I am all for it, [though] I oppose any military intervention."[5]

A Syrian opposition website warned France: "The Syrian people will never forgive [you] for sabotaging the British and European effort to include the head of the Syrian regime, the criminal Bashar Al-Assad, in the list of officials subjected to sanctions. This was an historic moment, when France had an opportunity to atone for its numerous horrendous mistakes in supporting this criminal, murderous, and dictatorial regime that is completely at odds with French values... You seem to have missed a golden opportunity to make the Syrian people forget that you once occupied Syria and imposed these murderers upon it... You welcomed [Bashar Al-Assad] at the Élysée Palace when he was a private citizen and held no official position, other than being the son of the head of the Syrian regime, Hafez Al-Assad. In this way, you promoted his status in the European arena and imposed him on the Syrian people for 11 years. When the noose tightened [around his neck following] the assassination of [Lebanese prime minister Rafiq] Al-Hariri, France rushed to tend to his public status... Oh French politicians, stop the lies. Stop the hypocrisy. Stop ignoring the interests of the Syrian people. We will not forgive and we will not forget..."[6]

Tariq Alhomayed, editor of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, questioned the effectiveness of the sanctions the U.S. and E.U. had imposed on the Syrian regime: "...If the Syrian regime succeeds in completely suppressing the protests, as it is now, it will easily extricate itself from the European or American sanctions. All that is needed is to create a crisis in Lebanon or elsewhere, e.g., in Palestine or Iraq, and the West will be forced to negotiate with Damascus and show good intentions, which means lifting the sanctions. Damascus has done this in the past. The most prominent example is the negotiations with the U.S. over the enforcement of control at the Syrian-Iraqi border. Indeed, the U.S. ambassador is still in Damascus, and there is no move to recall him, despite what is happening in Syria..."[7]

Calls on Arab League to Suspend Syria's Membership

Nor did Syrian oppositionists spare the Arab League from criticism. Ashraf Al-Miqdad, head of the Damascus Declaration in Australia, called on the League "to deal with the Syrian issue the same way it did with the Libyan issue... [by] revoking the recognition of the Syrian regime... The Syrian people do not want weapons or [interference from] Arab or Western armies. [All we want is] Arab diplomatic intervention that will support us."[8]

Mamoun Al-Homsi claimed: "Had there been a [definitive] Arab position at the onset of the revolution, the regime would not have taken such harsh steps... The Arab League's silence is like a green light for the regime to escalate its abuse of the Syrian people..." Al-Homsi called on the League to expel the Syrian delegate, suspend the Syrian regime's League membership, support the international resolutions to investigate the regime's actions against the Syrian people and endorse the resulting findings.[9]

Criticism of Elements Within Syria

Criticism was also leveled at Syrian oppositionists within Syria who met with regime representatives during the protests, at the vast majority of Syrian intellectuals for keeping silent in the face of the events, and at the state-sponsored media. This criticism came not only from oppositionists but also from elements that present themselves as "independent."

Intellectual Elite Accused of "Moral Corruption"

The events in Syria triggered division and finger-pointing among Syrian artists and intellectuals. Many artists were accused of treason by colleagues loyal to the regime after they called for an investigation into the bloody Der'a events and for assistance to be provided to the children there, who were suffering from the severe shortage of food and medicine as a result of the regime-imposed siege. The website, which defines itself as independent, responded sardonically to the attacks on artists critical of the regime: "The only solution for Syrian artists today is to shut up and simply watch the events, since every action is met with accusations of treason..."[10]

Columnist Muhammad Mansour claimed that the same Syrian artists who had endured the perilous trip to Gaza in order to support its residents were now standing idly by as the men, women, and children of their own people were under siege in Der'a. According to Mansour, "it was enough for [these artists] to release a timid statement asking for food to be sent [to the people of Der'a] through the health ministry or the Red Crescent. As of this writing, they see no need to work towards lifting the siege or bringing food in their [own] fancy cars... [This passivity] comes in place of setting an example to the people, who are breaking through the barrier of fear and refusing to bequeath to their children a life of humiliation, disgrace, and censorship... [These artists] regard the homeland as no more than the regime and its loyalists..."[11]

Hakam Al-Baba, former deputy director of the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists in Syria, also attacked Syrian artists "who are used to going from one shoe to another and kissing them all." He wrote: "Shame on you, Syrian artists. These are your own people who are protesting and dying for the sake of freedom. Shame on you for speaking of foreign plots and armed gangs. You are well aware that it is the intelligence apparatuses that arrest, torture, and kill... Compare your honorable positions on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt with your embarrassing positions on your own people's revolution. Do you think these people do not deserve freedom and respect? Should they live forever under the heel of the intelligence apparatuses? Think, at least, of your personal and professional futures, and of your moral and national status if the revolution succeeds; and it will succeed...

"As a friend who knows you well, and is aware of your real positions on the regime... I implore you to at least shut up. If you can't help this revolution, do not curse it, and do not level accusations of treason against those who stand, empty-handed and with unparalleled courage, against the most vicious intelligence apparatus in the world – against those who respect me and restore my respect and pride as a Syrian citizen. You, as actors, should know how testimonies are [scripted]. [Contrary to the claims of the regime], no one is eager to die because of a fatwa by some anonymous sheikh, because he was paid 50,000 lira, or because he was asked to do so by Sheikh [Yousef] Al-Qaradhawi, [Saudi Prince] Bandar bin Sultan, [former Syrian vice president] 'Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, [Bashar Al-Assad's uncle] Rif'at Al-Assad, or [Lebanese interim Prime Minister] Sa'd Al-Hariri. The devil himself could not recruit all these people, as well as TV channels like Al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera, France 24, BBC, Al-Hurra, and others, for a plot against Syria. Even if they all banded together and organized a protest, it would fail, unless the protestors themselves had an interest in it..."[12]

Criticism was also leveled at the Arab Writers Union in Syria, for its silence in the face of the regime's harsh treatment of the protestors. Poet 'Omar Idlibi even announced his resignation from the union and called on all free writers to do the same.[13]

The Syrian Media Has Given In to the Regime

Syria's government media, as well as some of the private media, were accused of fully endorsing the regime's narrative regarding the unrest, and even of treating protestors more harshly than the regime itself did. Journalist Iyad 'Issa resigned from the Syrian Journalist Union to protest against the position taken up by union leader Elias Murad, who, 'Issa said, had justified the killing of nonviolent protestors and prevented the publication of statements condemning the arrest of journalists and human rights activists.[14]

Journalist 'Abd Al-Karim Anis expressed surprise "at the government [media's] monopoly on the media arena, and over the fact that the Arab and foreign TV stations were prevented from covering the events in Syria. This behavior is understandable in certain situations... but I did not understand why the national and independent [Syrian] media was completely prevented from covering [the events] and restricted to [information] delivered by government media... I can't avoid talking about the dead that this homeland has lost, who were officially acknowledged as martyrs by the president, whereas the government media distinguished among the dead and did not respect the blood [of the protesters]. The funerals of martyrs from among the security forces and the army received respectable coverage, while the martyrs from among the people... were totally ignored..."[15]

Similar comments were made by Fathi Ibrahim Bayoudh Al-Tamimi, editor of the website "Not all the protestors are Salafis and terrorists. They are sons of the homeland who want freedom. They are martyrs by the will of Allah and [as acknowledged] by the decision of the president..."[16]

Dr. 'Ammar Al-Qurabi was not surprised by the one-sided coverage of the events in the Syrian media, which he called "an integral part of the security apparatuses... and its mouthpiece. Despite the scale of destruction, the official media is still [portraying the protests as] a few dozen people who took to the streets to thank Allah for the rains... I cannot say that the [government] media is betraying the citizen, because it never represented him [in the first place]. Since it was first established in 1960, the Syrian media has never spoken for the people, but rather for the regime."[17]

Dialog with the Regime Is a Betrayal of the Blood of the Dead

Following calls by the Syrian regime for a national dialogue, in addition to reports of meetings between oppositionists and regime officials, criticism was leveled at high-ranking Syrian oppositionists – such as Michel Kilo, 'Aref Dalila, Salim Khair Bek, and Louay Hussein – who had once represented the struggle against the Assad regime, but had met with President Assad's political advisor Buthaina Sha'ban at the height of the unrest.[18] The website called on these figures to meet the people's expectations and to serve as symbols of the revolution, stressing that anyone who met with Buthaina Sha'ban and her ilk under these circumstances, and anyone who refused to leave his home and join the mass movement and the people, was betraying the people and those who had died.

He wrote: "We hope that those who have been invited to dialogue with the regime will remain loyal to Syria, to the dead, and to the blessed revolution... Anyone who joins in dialogue with these murderers and criminals becomes one of them..."[19]

Hakam Al-Baba wrote of his friend Michel Kilo: "He knows that his meeting with [presidential] advisor Buthaina Sha'ban, and any promise of reform that she may given him, were nothing but a means to buy time, in order to destroy symbols that are respected by the Syrian people and generate confusion and arguments about them..."[20]

Kilo himself was quick to point out that it was Sha'ban who had invited him to the meeting, that "it was not a dialogue, but an exchange of opinions," and that he had made clear to her that "the security solution will not yield positive results... There is a need to discuss the essence of the problem, which is the Syrian people's desire for political, economic, and social reforms..."[21]

*N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 688, "The Resistance Camp Abandons Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and His Regime," May 13, 2011, The Resistance Camp Abandons Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and His Regime

[2] The New York Times, May 9, 2011.

[3] Al-Rai (Kuwait), May 11, 2011.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 10, 2011.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 13, 2011.

[6], May 11, 2011.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 11, 2011.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 15, 2011.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 10, 2011.

[11] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 6, 2011.

[13], May 14, 2011.

[14], April 14, 2011.

[15], May 1, 2011.

[16], April 21, 2011.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 13, 2011.

[18], May 9, 2011.

[19], May 15, 2011.

[20], May 13, 2011.

[21], May 13, 2011.

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