05/19/12 #Syria Street blocked in Midan, Damascus by protesters
By Michael Weiss Last updated: January 26th, 2012
Syrian army defectors gather at the mountain resort town of Zabadani (Photo: AP)
While the Syrian regime pummels away at long-restive cities such as Deraa and Hama, the new focal point for the revolution is none other than Damascus itself. Rebels, composed now of both army defectors and armed civilians, claim to be operating openly in Harasta, Hamowriya, Su’ban, Madaya and Ghouta, kidnapping regime personnel and taking the fight directly to Assad’s most elite (and loyal) army divisions and intelligence bureaus. There’s now even an all-women Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade.
Rebel gains have been impressive enough to percolate into the international news cycle. The “liberated” city of Zabadani, some 20 miles from Damascus, is already being spoken of as Syria’s “Benghazi”. Kareem Fahim reported recently in the New York Times that three neighborhoods in Douma are similarly under FSA command, albeit with regime security forces still present. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen was in Douma this morning and talked to several FSA soldiers who are in control of the centre of the city – at least for now.
Because the revolution has crept right up to Assad’s doorstep, I spoke the other day via Skype to an anti-regime activist from Midan, the site of a police bus explosion in early January which the regime termed a “suicide bombing” but was more likely a piece of theatre staged by the mukhabarat, which had cordoned off the site beforehand and even invited a state-TV camera crew to watch a supposedly spontaneous event. The Saudi news channel Al-Arabiya aired some very dodgy footage of the aftermath.
Have you heard about the Free Syrian Army (FSA) closing in on the capital?
Now, in Midan, there is a heavy security presence everywhere, and many arbitrary arrests. A few days ago, security forces started attacking the demonstrators and shooting them. Suddenly several FSA units appeared and started shooting back.
Do you believe the regime will be able to survive much longer?
The regime is so weak, it is even robbing banks and artefacts from museums to later sell them as it has no liquidity. The FSA ranks are increasing as there are defectors daily. We believe the regime could last for two more months. Damascus suburbs are filled with the FSA units which control many areas.
The regime is robbing banks?
Rebels saw security forces in Deraa and Hama surround a bank and rob it. It happened twice. In Deraa, security forces robbed a museum.
Is foreign military intervention is a good idea?
We in Midan call for an immediate foreign military intervention as the regime is killing dozens in all the provinces daily. And it is shooting the demonstrators in Damascus directly. Three or four demonstrations are taken out in Midan daily at different times. There is heavy security presence.
By “we,” whom do you mean? What grassroots group do you belong to?
I’m from the Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee in Midan.
And does the Committee support the Syrian National Council [the aspiring government-in-exile based in Istanbul]?
Yes, we support it and we call on it to increase its support to the FSA with finance, logistics, and media.
What did you make of the Arab League’s plan for a peaceful transition of power?
I absolutely reject it. Its sole purpose is to provide the regime with more time to kill more Syrians. We demand that the Arab League immediately transfer the Syrian file to the UN Security Council.
What do you want the Security Council to deliver?
We want a buffer zone and a no-fly zone. The regime bombed the Damascus suburb of Daraya yesterday with a helicopter. Therefore, we demand a no-fly zone.
They’re using armed helicopters in the Damascus suburbs now?
Helicopter gunfire on the positions of the FSA. At least two [helicopters] were seen.
Foreign journalists who were allowed into Syria recently haven’t reported seeing any helicopters in that area.
The regime is careful around Western journalists, as it hides all tanks, soldiers and army units when they are around. The regime also prohibits the take-off of any military warplanes when there are journalists present. The helicopters fly at night for only 5 to 10 minutes, then they fly away. Two people saw them in [the Damascus suburb of] Daraya.
[Note: There are several videos of helicopters flying overhead in restive areas of Syria. In June, as the UN report on the crisis stated, there were eyewitness accounts of helicopters shooting at demonstrators in Idleb province, particularly in the then-besieged city of Jisr al-Shughour. More recently, some grassroots groups have sent out press releases suggesting that the regime is using low altitude-flying military planes in Deraa and elsewhere. However, to date, the only hard evidence of any kind of aerial campaign is this video, ostensibly leaked, showing soldiers firing out the back of a transport aircraft. It was said to have been recorded in Rastan (Homs) last October.]
If you predict that the regime will fall in two months as things now stand, how long do you give it with the imposition of a no-fly zone and buffer zone?
It will definitely fall quicker. Brigades will defect from the regime completely if a no-fly zone is declared. They just fear that now as they know they will be bombed with airplanes. That is why they are waiting for a buffer zone and a no-fly zone to announce their defection.
Syrian Revolution General Commission\ Media Section:
Damascus: A loud sound of a very large explosion was heard today in Damascus close to Al-Qadam and Al-Maidan neighborhoods. The explosion sound reached the center of the city.
Aleppo: The University Dorm: The security forces raided the University dorms around twelve midnight, and they started arresting students randomly. They also withdrew students IDs from tens of students and attacked many of them by severely beating them. This action terrorized the students and led many of them to leave their dorms. The Shabeeha (Regime Sponsored Gangs) besieged building 19 which was the female student dormitory.
Hims: The northern Suburb of Hims: There was heavy and random gunfire last night till this morning from the armors located at the blockade of Al-Farhaneyyah village on the main road between Talbeesah and Ar-Rastan
Latakia: the Security forces opened live gunfire from the blockades in Ar-Raml Al-Junoobi neighborhood after midnight to spread horror amongst the residents.
An injury during the Arab League monitors to the city of Haish
An Injury of a child during the Arab League Monitors visit:
The activist female in Al-Keswah in support of Maddaya and Az-Zabadani and all affected cities
The meeting between the Arab League Monitors and the residents to give them their files of martyrs and detainees:
The residents met the monitors in a mass demonstration:
The outcomes of the shelling on the city
The snipers stationed on the roofs on top of the buildings
Syrian snipers have killed hundreds of protesters during the ten-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. The Sunday Telegraph met one who became sickened by the killing and now wants to fight against the regime.
8:43PM GMT 07 Jan 2012
For months Mohammed Ismael, a softly-spoken and clean-shaven 23-year-old, sat on the rooftops of buildings in Hama, menacing the city’s population with his powerful Chinese-made rifle.
He watched through his telescopic lens as men, women and children scattered in panic as his shots rang out, dropping their anti-regime banners and running for the cover of buildings and alleyways.
As a highly-trained sniper with the Syrian army’s elite 18th Division, he was repeatedly ordered by his officers to shoot protesters. He observed as the secret police arrested and savagely beat the people on the streets below him, and he listened as a handful of his comrades, hardcore regime supporters, boasted about their own prowess at hitting their mark - chalking up tallies of dead demonstrators who, they believed, were stooges paid $100 a day by Israel and other enemies of Syria.
But Mr Ismael, a Bedouin Arab from the desert region in the east of the country, was not so sure.
“At first we believed the officers when they said we were fighting against enemies of Syria,” he said. “We weren’t allowed to watch television and they took our mobile phones away, so we didn’t understand what was happening in our country.
“We were so excited. We wanted to do our duty and fight terrorists. But some of us soon realised that the crowds were just ordinary people, chanting for freedom.”
He dared not refuse to shoot, aware that if he did so he could be killed himself. Instead, he says, he was careful always to miss his targets: aiming slightly too high, silently praying that his bullet would hit nobody, and only then squeezing the trigger. To his relief, he claims, he never saw a body fall.
Finally it all became too much and in October - by now posted to a village near the Lebanese border - Mr Ismael decided to escape his unit. But as he did so he was shot in the shoulder, almost certainly by his commanding officer, he believes, and bleeding profusely had to be hauled to safety by other refugees.
Now Mr Ismael is among the growing number of Syrian army defectors who have found their way along a dangerous route across the border into neighbouring Lebanon.
Some have now joined the loose organistion that they call the Free Syrian Army, which is dedicated to fighting back against the regime - and Mr Ismael is convinced that thousands more would leave their posts almost immediately if only they had somewhere safe inside their own country to flee to.
“I wanted to escape in May, as soon as I realised that we had been lied to,” Mr Ismael told The Sunday Telegraph at his hiding place in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. “But there was nowhere to go then. Nearly everyone in the government army is secretly against the regime, but who wants to lose his life and throw away his future and that of his family for nothing?
“They would all defect if they had a chance.”
Like other army deserters, he believes the West has the means to provide that chance, and perhaps force the rapid collapse of the regime. “If there were a no fly zone, and some protected territory where army deserters could flee to, it would all be over quickly,” he said.
“Thousands of soldiers would defect, and they would kill the hard-core generals who still support President Bashar al-Assad. Peaceful protests are not enough. We need the Free Syrian Army and it needs the support of foreign countries.”
After 10 months of mostly peaceful protest in which the United Nations estimates 5,000 demonstrators have been killed, more and more opponents of Syria’s brutal regime are resigning themselves to the need to take up arms.
On Sunday an Arab League committee meets in Cairo to decide on whether to allow a team of monitors inside Syria to continue its work - where violence has not abated since it entered last weekend.
To add to the growing death toll inflicted on protesters, on Friday a suicide bomber apparently targeting a police bus in central Damascus killed 26 people and wounded 63. The government blamed the bloody attack on al-Qaeda, vowing an “iron fist” response. But a spokesman for the Syrian National Council blamed recent bombs on the “regime’s dirty game”, and activists pointed out that the attack was in Midan, an area with regular demonstrations on Fridays.
Soldiers who have deserted to Lebanon were blunter. Mr Ismael said: “There is no al Qaeda in Syria, this was done by the regime to try to frighten people. They want Syrians to think that if the regime falls, there will be bloodshed and civil war like in Iraq. Syrians know it is not true, they know the regime are killers.”
Karalokh Kal, a Syrian activist who fled to Beirut six weeks ago, said: “The regime was always a supporter of al Qaeda in Iraq so why should al Qaeda attack them now?
“The regime is ruthless enough to shed the blood of the poor, even of the thugs who it pays to support it who were killed in this bomb.”
Protesters in Syrian cities now call for military support from the West, after crowds initially insisted that Syrians could carry out a peaceful revolution by themselves.
Even educated liberals support the armed option, in many cases with a heavy heart.
“When I started protesting in the streets my parents said the regime would kill us, but we didn’t listen,” said one idealistic young medic who was forced to flee to Lebanon from Homs when the secret police came looking for him.
“We were hopeful and we thought we could bring the government down like they did in Egypt. Now I think the Free Syrian Army is the only way. And it needs weapons and help from abroad.”
Syria’s divided opposition in exile has argued over whether the revolution should take up arms and seek foreign military help. Last week in an interview with The Daily Telegraph the head of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, called for limited Western intervention, including air power to protect pockets of territory where anti-regime forces could rally and train - along the border with Turkey and perhaps the border with Jordan.
So far Turkey has talked tough but has refrained from active intervention, despite the flood of refugees entering from across the Syrian border, and other Western powers have remained unwilling to repeat their successful but expensive operation to enable regime change within Libya.
Those Syrians who hope the West will change its mind have been heartened in recent weeks at hearing stronger French criticisms of the Damascus regime.
But for now, the Free Syrian Army consists of only a few thousand lightly-armed men, capable of launching hit-and-run attacks against the regime but not a threat to its survival.
Its leader, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, last week threatened to launch attacks from his refuge on the Turkish border, but it was doubtful how many men really answer to him or what damage they can inflict.
Defectors claim that tens of thousands of soldiers have now fled their barracks, in many cases with their guns, and some have attempted to protect demonstrations from attack, with limited success. But the regime’s army probably still exceeds 300,000 men, armed with tanks and heavy weapons, making it a far more formidable force than anything at Colonel Gaddafi’s disposal in Libya.
Other army defectors whom The Sunday Telegraph met last week, huddled over a stove in the lawless Wadi Khalid area along the mountainous border, were hazy about the SFA to which they claimed to belong.
A former soldier called Zain said: “At the moment when a soldier defects he doesn’t know where to go, he needs sanctuary. If the SFA held territory inside Syria thousands would desert. We know that many of our old comrades would be desperate to get out of the army if they had a chance.”
The defectors are scathing about those activists who have themselves fled to Beirut, the Lebanese capital, but who still insist that their Syrian compatriots can bring down the regime without foreign help.
“Those activists who say we need a peaceful revolution, they are sitting in bars in Beirut enjoying themselves and they have no idea what it is like on the ground,” said a colleague.
“They can’t see what is going on and they don’t understand how much people are suffering in places like Hama. Food is cut off for neighbourhoods that are anti-regime, there is no power, and snipers shoot people at random.
“I’m sure that in these conditions, most people in Syria want foreign military help. They don’t want ground troops, but they do want a no-fly zone.”
Whether they get it or not, the defectors are determined to fight against the regime, and believe they now have no choice.
“If we fight, we believe we will win eventually. If we stop fighting, Assad will kill us all,” Mr Ismael said.
At least 27 people have been killed in clashes throughout Syria, an opposition group has said.
Eight died in the city of Homs and 13 in Idlib, the Local Co-ordination Committees said.
Scores of people have died in ongoing violence since Arab League monitors came to assess a regional peace plan.
The clashes came as thousands joined a massive government-organised funeral ceremony for victims of Friday’s bomb attack in the capital Damascus.
At least 26 people died in that attack, some of them members of the security forces.
The government has vowed to “strike back with an iron fist” against the perpetrators, but opponents accuse the authorities of staging the attack.
- More than 5,000 civilians have been killed, says the UN
- UN denied access to Syria
- Information gathered from NGOs, sources in Syria and Syrian nationals who have fled
- The death toll is compiled as a list of names which the UN cross-references
- Vast majority of casualties were unarmed, but the figure may include armed defectors
- Tally does not include serving members of the security forces
Source: UN’s OHCHR
Opposition activists have urged Syrians to take to the streets in mass protests ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Sunday which will debate the initial findings of the observer mission.
The UN says more than 5,000 civilians have been killed since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began 10 months ago.
‘The people want Assad’
According to the Syrian opposition Local Co-ordination Committees 27 people died around the country on Saturday - eight in Homs, 13 in Idlib, five in the suburbs of Damascus and one in Hama.
Local opposition groups said 35 had been killed on Friday, in the anti-government protests which have routinely followed Friday prayers. None of these numbers can be verified.
The Arab League observers have been in Syria since late December to monitor compliance with a peace plan under which the government promised to withdraw the military from the streets and cease its use of force against civilians.
But critics say Mr Assad is using their presence as a political cover and that attacks continue.
Saturday’s funerals were held at a mosque in the district of Midan, where Friday’s bomb attack took place. It is usually a hotbed of protests against the government.
The coffins were brought in ambulances through streets lined with mourners.
There have been thousands of funerals during the 10-month conflict in Syria, but few have received the kind of publicity given to the burial of 11 police officers killed in Friday’s bomb blast.
State TV showed large crowds chanting in support of President Assad as the flag-draped coffins were brought into the mosque in the Midan district of Damascus.
The attack fits the government’s narrative of the conflict - that it is confronting a terrorist conspiracy, not a mass uprising.
President Assad’s opponents say this is reason enough to suspect pro-government forces of ordering the suicide bombing, the second such attack in the capital in two weeks.
But the ceremony and procession were clearly organised by the authorities, with many participants carrying pictures of Mr Assad or national flags, which were also used to cover the coffins.
Some of those taking part were also heard chanting pro-government slogans, like “The people want Bashar al-Assad!” and “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!”.
The Damascus blast happened at a busy junction in the Midan district of Damascus.
Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar blamed the attack on a suicide bomber, who he said had “detonated himself with the aim of killing the largest number of people”.
“We will strike back with an iron fist at anyone tempted to tamper with the security of the country or its citizens,” he said.
But the country’s main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC) said the attacks had been carried out by Mr Assad’s government to discredit its critics.
“It is a continuation of the regime’s dirty game as it tries to divert attention from massive protests,” said spokesman Omar Idlibi.
The US condemned the attack, saying violence was not “the right answer to the problems in Syria”.
Two weeks ago 44 people died in similar blasts also blamed on terrorists but which opposition groups accused the government of staging.