Syrian navy pounds the port city of Latakia

Anthony Shadid reports:

In yet another escalation of its crackdown on dissent, the Syrian government unleashed navy vessels, tanks and a mix of soldiers, security forces and paramilitary fighters against the port city of Latakia on Sunday, killing at least 25 people, including three children, activists and residents said.

The attacks in Latakia marked the third weekend in a row that the government has defied international condemnations in its campaign to stanch a remarkably resilient uprising, which began in March. The attacks have stoked fresh outrage, in part because they have come during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a time of piety and festivity when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

For much of the summer, President Bashar al-Assad’s government seemed to lose momentum in the face of protests that brought out hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Syria’s fourth and fifth-largest cities, Hama and Deir al-Zour. But this month, the government retook firm control first of Hama, then Deir al-Zour last weekend. Late on Saturday, it turned its attention to Latakia, which, like Syria as a whole, has a Sunni Muslim majority and an Alawite minority, the Muslim sect that is disproportionately represented in the country’s leadership.

The attacks grew in ferocity on Sunday, and activists and residents said for the first time that gunfire was coming from navy vessels anchored off the coast. As in Hama, activists said security forces fired anti-aircraft weapons at civilian buildings. In addition, the activists said, land-line telephones and Internet connections were cut off to some neighborhoods of Latakia, a city of 650,000 that serves as Syria’s main port.

Tony Karon argues that Syria’s fate may come to rest less in the hands of its own people than be determined by its most influential neighbor: Turkey.

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is arguably more responsive to domestic public opinion than any in Turkey’s history, and just as Turks were outraged at images of Israel pulverizing Gaza in early 2009, so have they been outraged at the spectacle at the Sunni civilian population across the border being shot and shelled for having the temerity to challenge the Assad regime, whose sectarianizing of the conflict also turns the predominantly Sunni Turkish public against Damascus. Then again, Turkey’s Alevi sect, that accounts for about 20% of the countries Muslims, has a close affinity with Syria’s ruling Allawites. Turkey’s interests are arguably less sectarian, in nature, than anti-sectarian.

Then, there’s the fact that some 10,000 Syrian refugees from Assad’s crackdown have already flooded into Turkey, and more would surely follow if the Syrian military allowed them to flee. That prompted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deem Syria a domestic issue, rather than simply a foreign policy challenge for Turkey.

But while Turkey insists that the Syrian protests are a popular movement that require engagement and reforms by the regime, Iran embraces Assad’s narrative that the protests are a product of Western or Israeli (or Saudi, although that’s rarely said) scheming. Iran has reportedly delivered $5 billion in emergency aid to shore up the Assad regime (and by some accounts has pressed its allies in Iraq to do the same). Rumours that Syria’s military is being coached by the Iranians, however, seem farfetched — or part of a propaganda effort to paint Iran as the fount of all evil. Syria has plenty of experience deploying military force against its own citizenry, and its direct military assaults on opposition strongholds make Iran’s 2009 post-election crackdown look kid-gloved by comparison.

AFP reports:

Spain sent a special envoy to Damascus last month to convince President Bashar al-Assad to accept a plan to end months of violence in the country, a Spanish news report said on Monday. The government was also “ready to offer asylum to Assad and his family in Spain,” the country’s leading daily El Pais said.

The violence in Syria has killed around 2,200 people since March, including some 400 members of the security forces, according to rights activists. Syrian authorities have blamed the bloodshed on armed gangs and Islamist militants.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero sent Bernardino Leon, who was at the time one of his senior aides, to Damascus in July “to propose a transition plan for a peaceful solution to the revolution,” El Pais said, quoting sources close to Leon.

The mission was so secret that Leon travelled alone using an ordinary passport rather than a diplomatic one. He never set foot in any public building in Damascus, instead meeting with Syrian officials at their homes.

Jillian C York describes the electronic army that has been mobilized to defend Assad:

While the battles between the opposition and the Syrian regime are waged on the ground, a different battle is emerging online.

In the midst of a virtual blackout on the city of Hama, citizen videos – often shaky and unverifiable – document the brutality of the Syrian military’s crackdown on the city, ongoing since July 31 – the day before the start of Ramadan – while online campaigns, hosted on Facebook and Twitter, aim to draw attention to events on the ground. The narrative: Syrians are suffering and want the world to take notice.

At the same time, and often on the same networks, a different story can be seen, as Syrians in favour of the Assad regime stake out online ground in attempt to shift the narrative in their favour. And though there are individuals who post supportive sentiments about Assad, the overwhelming majority of pro-regime content online appears well-coordinated; the work of organised groups coming together to support the beleaguered president.

Tunisia’s Ben Ali promised a more open internet just one day before he was ousted. In Egypt, Mubarak sought a different strategy, shutting down the majority of the internet for a week in the hopes of disabling activist networks. Syria has taken a different approach to the internet altogether, first unblocking popular social networking sites, then throwing support to pro-regime hackers in the hopes of countering opposition forces online.

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