The revolution reaches Damascus
Until this week, it appeared that Syria might be immune from the turmoil that has gripped the Middle East. But trouble may now be starting to brew.
On March 18, popular demonstrations escalated into the most serious anti-government action during Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s decade-long rule. Security forces opened fire on a demonstration in the southern city of Deraa, killing at least two protesters. The unrest also does not appear to be contained to any one geographical region: Protests were also reported in the northwestern city of Banias, the western city of Homs, the eastern city of Deir al-Zur, and the capital of Damascus.
The demonstrations began on March 15, when a small group of people gathered in Souq al-Hamidiyeh, Damascus’s historic covered market, to turn the ruling Baath Party’s slogans against it. “God, Syria, freedom — that’s enough,” they chanted. The phrase is a play on words on the Baathist mantra: “God, Syria, Bashar — that’s enough.” The next day, around 100 activists and relatives of political prisoners gathered in front of the Interior Ministry in Damascus’s Marjeh Square to demand the release of Syria’s jailed dissidents.
The protests may be small fry by regional standards, but in Syria — repressively ruled under a state of emergency since the Baath Party came to power in 1963 — they are unprecedented. An atmosphere of fear and secrecy makes the extent of discontent hard to ascertain. Sources outside the country said demonstrations took place in six of Syria’s 14 provinces on Tuesday. Those claims were hard to verify, but the government is clearly rattled: It has beefed up the presence of its security forces, a ragtag-looking bunch in leather jackets, across the country and especially in the northeast, home to a large and often restless Kurdish population, and Aleppo. (Foreign Policy)
Demography and Bahrain’s unrest
The introduction of GCC troops into Bahrain has been labeled a foreign “occupation” by the opposition, while the government has hailed it as brotherly support from its neighbors. In fact, this “native-foreigner” issue has a long history in the country and serious political implications not only in Bahrain but also throughout the Gulf.
The Bahraini monarchy has long relied on foreigners not only as military and police forces, but also to shift the political balance in the island kingdom. The opposition in Bahrain, drawing primarily but not exclusively on support from the country’s majority of Shi’i Muslims, has accused the government of fast-tracking the citizenship of carefully selected foreigners in order to change the demographic makeup of the country. The “politically naturalized,” as they are called, are Sunni Muslims mainly from Bedouin tribes in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, and Baluchistan. They are seen as having close ethnic and cultural links to the local rulers. Estimates of their numbers range from 50,000 to 200,000, constituting between one-tenth and one-third of the total number of citizens.
The politically naturalized are mainly employed in the security and defense forces, increasing the perception that they have been brought in to contain the local population. The graphic videos surfacing of the recent attacks by security forces against protestors show actions that involved some foreign or politically naturalized individuals.
This systematic use of foreign forces is a tradition that goes back decades. It was first used in the region by the British in the nineteenth century, when divisions composed of individuals from Baluchistan and the Indian sub-continent were brought in to help establish control over the Trucial coast. It limits the risk of identification with locals and of defection. Fears about loyalty are less of an issue, as long as the right material incentives are provided. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
Bahrain clashes: ‘Riot police showed no mercy
CBS Radio News reporter Toula Vlahou was covering clashes between protesters and riot police outside Manama, Bahrain.
Riot police were firing tear gas and advancing toward the protesters. Vlahou and her BBC driver, a local Bahraini who was taking pictures – decided to leave the area. The riot police confronted them while they were in the car. The driver backed up and the riot police opened fire on the car.
“We were attacked by a wall of riot police,” Vlahou said. “We thought they were going to fire tear gas at us. But they fired pellets at us.”
“I had to fall to the ground in the driver’s seat as the driver was driving to get out of there,” Vlahou added.
The riot police began chasing them and continued shooting at the car. A helicopter was hovering above them for the entire time.
Vlahou said her driver believes that a helicopter above saw him filming, and “chased us and actually pursued us because they say him filming the scene.” The neighborhood people were watching from their houses as Vlahou and the driver were being fired upon. One neighbor waved at them to come into the house. The local family ushered them into a prayer room in the back of the house where they remained there an hour. (CBS News)
Yemen unrest: ‘Dozens killed’ as gunmen target rally
Unidentified gunmen firing on an anti-government rally in the Yemeni capital Sanaa have killed at least 39 people and injured 200, doctors told the BBC.
The gunmen fired from rooftops overlooking the central square in what the opposition called a massacre.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh later declared a national state of emergency.
He said he regretted Friday’s casualties but denied security forces had been behind the shooting, as the opposition demanded his resignation.
“There is no longer any possibility of mutual understanding with this regime and he has no choice but to surrender authority to the people,” Yassin Noman, rotating president of Yemen’s umbrella opposition group, was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying. (BBC)
A terrible day for Yemen
The situation in Yemen is looking increasingly insoluble. The problem is not merely how to get rid of Salih but what will happen after he goes. The longer he clings on, the more difficult it will be to achieve a peaceful transition – and it may even be too late for that already. (Brian Whitaker)