Samir Twair, Syrian activist, journalist and correspondent for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, spoke at the Levantine Center on Sunday, November 6, 2011, about the history of and current situation in Syria.
The talk was one in the series "Progressive Conversations on Israel/Palestine and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East," sponsored jointly by the Levantine Center, LA Jews for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Friends of Sabeel Los Angeles and Orange County.
Twair is an active member of the Syrian American Council and the Syrian Emergency Task Force; the former is now a member of the Syrian National Council, an alliance of Syrian nationals and Syrians living abroad opposed to the current regime of President Bashar al-Assad. He also speaks from experience. Twair was a student activist in Syria, and then worked as a journalist in Damascus reporting on Syria to the Jordan Times before moving to the United States in the early 1980s.
His initial remarks summarized modern Syrian history, from the Independence in 1946 to the overthrow of the first Syrian elected government in1949, to being a member (with Egypt under Nasser) of the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961, and the subsequent coup and control of the country under the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party in 1963. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad (the father of the current President) took over the government in a coup and began systematically to consolidate power for himself and his fellow members of the minority Alawite sect while at the same time carrying out extensive and violent repression of public demonstrations such as in Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo with arrests and killings, the mass execution of prisoners at Palmyra Prison, and most infamously, the crushing destruction of the city of Hama in 1982 in which anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people were murdered.
Bashar al-Assad, then 34 years old, succeeded his father in in 2000 after a rapid change to the Constitution lowering the requirement from 40 years of age. At first he promised reforms to enable more democratic participation, but within three years had continued the repressive policies of his father. The repression was so severe, said Twair, that the Syrian people have been unable, until this year, to publicly oppose the practices of the Assad family.
Thus, the current uprising was surprising and exhilarating for all Syrians. It began in the city of Daraa on March 16th, 2011 with a demonstration by mothers protesting the arrest of their teenage sons from writing graffiti adapted from the expressions of the uprisings in other Arab countries. When the mothers were fired upon and arrested, protests began. And though Bashar al Assad thought he would be able to violently repress the opposition, he failed to take into consideration the new tools of the Internet, Facebook, and telecommunications.
According to Twair, the three principles of the opposition, to be found in every town and city in Syria and continually expanding, are these: first, the protest is peaceful and non-violent; second it is inclusive of all Syrians, of all classes, religion, and ethnicity; third and finally, the opposition does not want foreign military intervention (as was the case in Libya). The opposition is represented by the Syrian National Council, currently headquartered in Istanbul. It was started on September 15 of this year, originally representing 120 members but now it includes 230, where 52% of this Council are from inside Syria and 48% from Syrians living abroad. Its newly elected president is Burhan Ghalioun. The Council, according to Twair, represents a variety of interests, from the Muslim Brotherhood on the right of the political spectrum, to the Democratic National Assembly on the left.
At the moment, The Arab League is working on a proposal for the Assad regime to stop the violence, release prisoners, and start negotiations for a settlement. Although President Assad has indicated that he would accept the terms, the violence continues.
At this point, according to Twair, 4,252 people have been killed, among them 268 children and 189 women. More than 20,000 people are missing or unaccounted for, over 50,000 are held prisoners, and over 16,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. No foreign journalists have been allowed into the country for the past eight months. Defectors from the Syrian army have tried to organize resistance, and they have defected from all units: from the Intelligence Service, from the Army, from the Special Republican Guard.
The government has claimed that over 1,000 government soldiers have been killed and has used this to justify its repressive tactics.
In the question and answer session, Twair was asked a number of questions that provided further insight into the current situation:
• that the army is continuing its loyalty to the Assad family since the control of the army is under Alawi leaders, and Maher al-Assad, the President's brother, is commander of the Republican Guard. A majority of career soldiers are members of the Alawite community.
• that the non-violence of the protests will be successful, especially since defections are happening daily, the regime is isolated in the world community, and international sanctions will be starting soon. Only Iran, and less strongly, Russia, China support the regime. A surprise is India, now doing business with the Assad government. It is not vetoing or condemning, but is abstaining. In public, Russia and China support the Syrian people but in private continue to deal with the Syrian government. Iraq too supports the regime, which explains why no defectors have gone there.
• although soldiers are defecting, Twair was firm in insisting that non-violence is continuing, pointing to the incident in Deir ez Zor in which elders refused to give up defectors and when the city was surrounded by the army tanks, nearly 80% of the citizens took to the streets in protest. Further, as long as Israel is content to let the Syrian regime stand, said Twair, the US and NATO will not attack.
• that the regime does not have full support: in a country of 23 million, only about 3 million openly support the regime; there is support from the the Death Squads ("the third army'), the secret service (the Mukhabarat), and the Alawite-led army. The majority of the army is still Sunni Muslim, but if the Alawite officers begin to go, the Sunnis may be able to gain control. Up to now, mostly Sunnis have defected.
In fact, the street was ahead of the parties. It remains to be seen what plays out, but all the opposition members, said Twair, want the regime to end and to be replaced with a democratic government.
• that the Alawites, although 10% of the population, do show signs of change. At least three Alawite tribes have said that the government does not represent them.
• that although the Ba'ath party claims to be for social welfare, freedom, and socialism, throughout all of their lives Syrians have seen none of these. If you are a member of the party you get a job. The promise of "socialism" is a cover for the rest of the world. However, even in the Ba'ath party there have been some defections.
• that Lebanese Christians support the regime because of the threat of Muslim fundamentalism, although Michel Kilo, a Syrian Leftist, has supported the revolution and has asked Christians in Syria to support Democracy. The government of Lebanon is still associated with the Ba'athist regime after the nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon by the Syrian army.
• that despite reports, such as in the LA Times and other papers, 10,000 soldiers have defected and want to start an armed revolution, and that according to Nir Rosen, the defectors are committed to armed uprising, or in another article a retired Syrian general is recruiting soldiers, Twair insists that "there will be no civil war. The Syrian identification with non-violence is very strong. The media like to talk about armed struggle. So far, the people have refused to carry arms." Violent response, said Twair, is exactly what President Assad is looking for to justify further repression.
A question by a member of the audience who identified himself as a Libyan in support of intervention, was that Moammar Gaddafi was supported only by 10% of the tribes, similar to Assad. How then can Syrian intelligentsia stand aside while thousands die? Why not use the Libyan model since it is unfair to keep the murder going on. Twair's answer was that a lot of Syrians do think of a foreign intervention, but they understand that if NATO /US forces follow a Libyan strategy, many more people will die from friendly fire in Syria than have died from it in Libya, due to the smaller size of Syria and the spread of population throughout the whole country.
The extensive two-hour session was brought to a close by Dick Platkin of LA Jews for Peace thanking Samir Twair for his historical background and his analysis of the current situation in Syria.
Tony Litwinko is an activist with Friends of Sabeel.