This week, the BBC broadcast a compelling “Panorama” programme about Syria (available below via YouTube, but also available here via iPlayer), in which reporter Jane Corbin, tracing the roots of the people’s uprising against the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad, focused on Deraa, the town of 80,000 inhabitants in the south of Syria where, after intellectuals and human rights activists began protesting in Damascus in mid-March (followed by many arrests), the townspeople of Deraa took over the struggle against the Assad regime, protesting about how some of their children were arrested and tortured for two weeks after scribbling graffiti critical of the regime.
The film includes shocking footage taken in Deraa by local activists and journalists, breaking through the almost total ban on foreign journalists, some of which has never been shown before, and it reveals how, from the beginning, the regime responded to peaceful protests with random killings by snipers, designed to quell dissent through fear. The footage also reveals how the security forces targeted medical staff inside ambulances, to prevent them from treating the wounded, and also contains other distressing footage from March and April, when the security forces roamed Deraa, seizing people and taking them away — to be tortured, and often killed.
As the protests spread to other towns, the violence increased, and on April 25, Deraa was besieged by the Syrian army, and many more protestors — men, women and children — were killed, both in the town, and amongst supporters from nearby towns who tried to break the blockade and deliver supplies. Others — including children — were taken away and tortured, as happened with 13-year old Hamza al-Khateeb, and it is estimated that across Syria over a hundred children have been killed by the army and the security services since March.
Jane Corbin also traveled to Turkey to meet one particular defector from the Syrian army, a soldier, who explained how armed gangs — the shabia or “ghosts” — were employed as agent provocateurs and hired killers, randomly assassinating people while pretending that they were part of anti-government forces. She also met up with one of the highest-ranking defectors from the Syrian army, Col. Riad al-Asaad, the head of the Free Syria Army, who had just declared his intention to bring down the regime through force. As The Syria Report noted, the official announcement of the existence of the FSA marks the “beginning of armed rebellion.” Al-Asaad stated, “You cannot remove this regime except by force and bloodshed. But our losses will not be worse than we have right now, with the killings, the torture and the dumping of bodies.”
The programme highlighted the problems facing the opposition to the Assad regime — the allegiance to Bashar al-Assad of the majority of officers in the army, who are from the same background as the Assad family (the minority Alawite sect) — but explained that most soldiers are Sunnis, and that thousands of soldiers are thought to have defected already, creating the possibility that armed resistance may finally prevail where martyrdom has not.
To date, though, at least 2,700 people have been killed in Syria since March, Deraa is still occupied by the army, and, of those killed, 600 have died in Deraa alone, and 3,000 more have disappeared. As violence again erupted across Syria today, this programme is a timely insight into the oppression of the Syrian people by the Assad regime, which, as human rights groups have been reporting since the first stories of torture and disappearances emerged, is guilty of crimes against humanity.
Note: For further information, see the Amnesty International report, “Syria: Deadly detention: Deaths in custody amid popular protest in Syria,” published on August 31.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Dejanka Bryant wrote:
Very interesting, Andy. I travelled through Syria in December 2009/2010. It did remind me of worshipping the leader Bashar as we did with Tito in former Yugoslavia. When we, westerners, went to log in into our blogs we were denied the accesses. All over Damascus and other towns we found Internet cafes that allow us to bypass the government restrictions. One I liked was called ‘Hatebook cafe’. You go in and they give you the pass. Back to Britain, I happened to have a Syrian teacher of Arabic language. His view of what happened in his homeland is contrary to all our western news. I like to listen to him without any judgement. Syria is a very complicated country.
Thanks, Dejanka. I have a Syrian friend, who was tortured by the regime, so that tends to color my analysis of the country. I was fascinated by your analysis of how Syria was two years ago, and it sounded like it was less of a police state than before Bashar al-Assad, but clearly still an authoritarian place where people had to be careful — like Tunisia was, from my understanding. Always happy to hear more.
Dejanka Bryant wrote:
Yes, that was exactly my opinion. We met lovely people who were very careful what to say. No one dares to speak against the system, clearly. When you asked about censorship they would lower their voices, telling you that they don’t know about that. Everything was fine, but you can read their thoughts easily. The government appeared to be very supportive to Palestinian refugees, but once we reached the refugee camps we learnt totally different stories. My friends and I were invited for dinner at the Palestinian house so I absorbed their truth. They lived for decades on the outskirts of the town Lattakia, in a densely populated area. Their houses were built by them but the land belong to the state. At any minute the officials could come aand take the part of the house for the development. They were never offered citizenship, but allowed to work. Imagine how surprised I was learning that night that they are not even allowed to have their pensions after decades working in Syria. I stll can’t comprehend that.
Last year, there was a positive step taken by the Syrian Government regarding these issues. I guess they were dead scared of the Arab revolutions ( yes, I do call them revolutions, not Spring) that stormed the Middle East. Anyway, Assad is not different from his father and his uncle, who, as we know very well, massacred people in Hama, not long ago. Syrian revolution might have been instigated by fundamentalists and criminals who wanted to benefit from it ( I know, that’s how it started in Yugoslavia) but it became quickly an uprising of ordinary people who were slaughtered mercilessly by this awful dictator and his corrupt followers, his immoral secret police and equally immoral army. It’s no surprise that his only remaining friend is that lunatic from Iran, famous for hanging his political opponents on tree branches, as a lesson how to preserve morality in his society. What a friend!
Dejanka Bryant wrote:
Andy, sorry to take your time. One more thing. Do you remember when Palestinians from refugee camps went in large crowds to Israeli fence (disputed area) to ask for their rights of return to their homeland that was taken from them by Israelis in 1948 and 1967. I had a bitter taste about that incidents. Assad wanted them to be attacked by Israelis just to shift the news from his murderous behaviour towards his own people. When he realised he didn’t succeed he ordered his army to bomb that very refugee camp I visited from the sea. Too much to learn about his murderous mind.
Thanks again, Dejanka — and really, I don’t think your comments could be construed as taking up my time, when they’re so clearly of great relevance to the various topics being discussed, and those are what I’m hoping to raise awareness of, and to provoke discussion.
Those are very poignant stories, and show clearly how the Middle East dictators are concerned solely with their own survival.
As for the revolution in Syria (and I agree completely about not being distracted by the “Arab Spring” description), it really did appear to me that it was driven partly by the protest and arrest of the human rights activists and the families of imprisoned human rights activists (many of them Kurds) in Damascus, and then by what appeared to be a spontaneous demonstration against Assad’s imprisonment and torture of children in Deraa — although there may, of course, have been other forces agitating to provoke that particular dissent.
Since what happened in Tunisia, however, I’ve been struck by how one of the drivers for change seems to be a kind of collective impulse, which has its own force, however much it may subsequently be manipulated by others with their own agendas. It’s what I also see spreading to the West, which gives me hope that there’s a kind of tipping point in the self-interest and/or apathy required to sustain the odious status quo that is being reached.
I pray for the people with Syria…
Thank you, Johannes, for your concern.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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