Syria: The violent crackdown in Deraa – who is in charge in Syria?

Aljazeera have reported that Bashar Al-Asaad has, previously, staked out a middle course concerning the response to the protests in Deraa. He has on the one hand sent in police and military to the city to quell the unrest and on the other hand released children detained for spraying pro-democracy graffiti, sacked the unpopular governor and sent a delegation of ministers to meet with the protesters. Apart from minor protests the Deraa uprising has not spread. But this might be about to change.

What’s happened in Deraa in the last 24 hours seems like a shift from Al-Asaads mixed response to one of full court press, a violent crackdown, which has left 32 people killed, according to the Syrian Human Right Committee. On twitter there are reports of 10 000 person strong in demonstrations in Deraa in response to the massacre. And the response of the police and military – to fire live rounds into the crowd of demonstrators.

According to SANA, the Syrian news agency, armed gangs attacked an ambulance on its way to the Omari mosque and killed the physician, a medic and the driver – this being contradicted by eye witnesses.  The Syrian government has also moved into familiar territory with the spin that foreigners are involved and behind the protests and that weapons from Israel has been found in Deraa. According to SANA over 1 million text messages has been sent from Israel to Syrians to use the Omari mosque as a center for riots. This is the typical lies of a desperate government. Those Syrians I know would never believe these blatant lies. And have we not heard this before? Similar accusations of foreign plots (as if Arabs are not capable to voice an opinion without being controlled by outside forces…) from Mubarak, from Ben Ali, from Abdullah Saleh and from Qaddafi. Yet again the same mistakes from governments who does not understand that we are no longer stuck in the 1980s.

Syria has with Deraa passed a point of no return!

The question in my mind is the government response to the demonstrations in Deraa. Mixed, is the message from Aljazeera. The idea that the Syrian government, those in power, act as a unified block must be discarded. The ‘mixed’ response might therefore also be one that signals an internal struggle for control of the agenda – between liberals and hardliners, for a move towards reform or one of increased repression. If this is the case, if  Bashar Al-Asaad is as refromist as he in the past has signaled and if he is in genuine control of Syria or if he has to navigate to avoid a coup, will  define the continuing response to the protests. If the crackdowns continue then it is highly likely that the presidents freedom to act is highly limited or that he has showed us his real face.

If one takes a look at the power players in Syria one that stands to loose a lot, maybe his freedom even, if there is a move towards freedom, liberty and accountability is a source of discontent for a lot of Syrians – Rami Makhlouf, the presidents cousin. This man might be the power behind the throne who through is amassed fortune would be in a position to influence the development towards more of repression, all in the name of preserving is position. Justice for Makhlouf his and his cronies would be a first simple move for Bashar Al-Asaad to show the Syrians that he takes their complaint of nepotism and corruption seriously and that he is in control. Another would be to meet the protesters in Deraa, launch a investigation in to the killings of demonstrators and a legal process against those responsible. But such an investigation and legal processes must also be conducted by individuals that are beyond suspicion of being in this or that persons pocket.

But all that is based on the hypothesis that Bashar Al-Asaad has not signed off on the crackdown himself. If that is the case I am afraid that Syria might move down the path of a bloody armed uprising. In the age of internet, twitter and youtube the atrocities can no longer be hidden. And the international community has with the historic UNSCR resolution 1973/2011 and the ICC sent a clear signal to authoritarian leaders – you are being watched and you will be judged if your turn on your own people. Deraa will not become a new Hama.

About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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