Foreign Policy Blogs

Game On; The Opposition is Back

So the outcome of the Syrian uprising is not as clear cut as I would have had you believe a few short weeks ago. The opposition has rallied and is once again putting some pretty serious pressure on the Assad regime. Protestors took to the streets in significant numbers today. The numerous arms of the government do not show any signs of backing down either, as reports of as many as 60 killed are coming out of Hama.

The tea leaves are pointing towards the potential for serious violence. That is not to downplay the level of bloodshed that has already taken place, however, up to now violent clashes have been relatively small in scale. Based on the trends that have emerged over the past week, that could change. Maybe soon.

There are three really significant events that you need to be paying attention to.

First is the public outcry surrounding the death of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb. One of the pitfalls of the Syrian opposition movement is that they have not had a central image or narrative to unify such a diverse group. Tunisia had its self-immolated martyr (although there appears to be reason to doubt his original intent), Egypt had its Tahrir Square, but in Syria the opposition has not had a symbol capable of rallying the people to its cause. Well that might be about to change.

For some background, what we know is that Hamza was a 13 year old Syrian boy, killed in connection with the ongoing Syrian protest movement. What appears to have happened, of course with no independent verification, is that Hamza was arrested about a month ago and tortured pretty badly while in government custody.

His body was returned to his family this week, and from the pictures (available at the end of this post, be warned they are graphic) it seems that he was systematically wounded  in a way to maximize his suffering. Pictures and video of his remains have circulated quickly, and his name has become a rallying cry during friday protests today, June 3rd (Friday of the Children of Freedom).

Game On; The Opposition is Back

Photo of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb at the head of Syrian Protests

The UN has called for an international investigation into the boy’s death, while the Syrian government has predictably denied such attempts, and is suggesting that the boy’s remains show no sign of torture. Stay classy, SANA.

Regardless of who is right, the story could be an extremely powerful symbol. With family playing such a central role in Syrian society, the death of a child reverberates deeply and has the potential to be the straw that turns public attitudes against Assad.

The second big event that you need to be paying attention to is the dramatic internet shut down that took place today in Syria. Following the Egyptian playbook, the government shut down pretty much all public access to the internet and mobile information networks today. Check the Google traffic report here.

This sure seems like a desperate move to me. Not only does this imply that the government can’t control the narrative, it shows that they can’t arrest, intimidate, or otherwise thug their way out of this. It also isn’t going to do the Syrian economy any favors, or the Syrian business class that has, up to this point, supported Assad.

Lastly, and most importantly, the Syrian opposition just had a two day meeting in Antalya, Turkey.

One of the biggest criticisms of the opposition is that it hasn’t presented any sort of clear alternative to the current regime. Diverse, and representing conflicting ideologies, there was no way to know who the opposition really was, or what they stood for. Over the last two days leaders of many different ethnic, religious, political, and tribal groups gathered in an effort to unify the movement, and answer the many questions about what the movement actually is.

Check out the Syria Comment page for good coverage of the meeting here and here; also try here and here.

The conference released a rather ho-hum declaration calling on Assad to resign. Highly likely. I haven’t read the full list of opposition demands but it seems that they still have some work to do. Specifically the working group established at the conference will need to iron out some pretty serious differences–the old joke is that when you get 5 Syrians in a room you get 10 opinions. Questions of what comes next and how it will be achieved are still kind of unanswered. These hurdles will need to be cleared and  if any kind of peaceful transition is to be achieved. It remains to be seen if the opposition is truly unified in the aftermath of Antalya.

The opposition needed to come up with a platform that is capable of pleasing moderate Alawites (if there are any; this piece suggests maybe not), Christians, and the urban business elite that have remained on the sidelines so far. That means any future political order will need to be secular(!!!) and minority friendly if it’s going to be embraced. Achieving this will be no easy thing, as the Muslim Brotherhood is playing a fairly large role in the opposition gathering, and old vs new rivalries between leaders persist.

I’ve gotta be honest; I’m still not sure I see the current regime walking away. In the past my predictions that Assad would remain in power were based on 1) A weakness in, and lack of support for, the opposition and 2) the nature and attitude of the Assad regime.

While the last week has changed my mind a bit about the resilience of the opposition, and the amount of support it enjoys, my feelings as to the likelihood of the Ba’athist infrastructure stepping away remain unchanged. I just don’t see Bashar, and his hard core of supporters, giving up power. Ever.

That sounds like a pretty deadly game of chicken, with a lot of civilians in the middle.

Video of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb’s Body–Warning–Very Graphic

Game On; The Opposition is Back

Hamza's remains; wounds abound



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.