The Coming Fall of Assad?

Mar. 18, 2004

Bashar Assad dodged another bullet by dispersing last weekend’s anti-government riots in northern Syria. And his Ba’ath Party continues to maintain a tyrannical grip over the lives of 22 million Syrians. For Syria’s democratic reformers, however, the widespread unrest may signify the calm before the storm.

As of Monday, armed police continued to guard the streets of Qamoshli in northeastern Syria, where stores were closed and the atmosphere remained tense following the largest uprising against the Ba’ath Party in years.

The riots capped a full week of protests that began with the detainment on March 8 of several pro-democracy advocates, as well as an American diplomat stationed at the US embassy in Damascus.

Syrian security officials seized the diplomat while breaking up a pro-democracy march organized by the committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in front of the Syrian parliament building.

The march coincided with events celebrating the 41st anniversary of the Ba’ath Party’s ascension to power.

Syrian authorities quickly broke up the demonstration and arrested the small group of activists – who knew beforehand that would be the likely outcome of their call for change.

While Syrian officials issued a swift apology to the US for the diplomat’s brief detainment, no admission of guilt appears forthcoming from the Ba’ath Party regarding the events of this past weekend.

Kurdish sources say that close to 100 opponents of the regime were killed and hundreds more injured by police and army units during riots that swept through Qamoshli, Hasakah, Dirik, Amouda, and Ras el-Ein – all Kurdish majority cities in northern Syria.

The uprising began last Friday during a soccer match in Qamoshli, a city of 200,000 near Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey. Fans of the visiting Fituwya club – which is based in the city of Dar el-Zur, near the Syrian/Iraqi border – threw stones at supporters of the hometown Al-Jihad team and chanted Ba’athist slogans such as “Viva Saddam Hussein.” Al-Jihad supporters responded by chanting “Viva Barazani” (in honor of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barazani) and “Viva democracy.”

This exchange of angry words eventually led to an all-out brawl between the two sides in which three young children were trampled to death inside the stadium.

The riots eventually spread from the stadium to the Qamoshli streets, where Syrian police reportedly killed at least 30 Kurds. A group of Kurds responded by taking over a local police station, only to relinquish it when Syrian troops and helicopters arrived from Damascus.

Members of Syria’s elite special forces units, which were supposed to have been largely disbanded in 2000 as part of Assad’s short-lived reforms, also reportedly assisted in crushing the Qamoshli rebellion.

DESPITE THE deadly response of Syrian authorities in Qamoshli, the uprising soon spread to the nearby city of Amuda, where statues and murals of Bashar Assad were destroyed, and demonstrators marched in the streets calling for the restoration of human rights and the release of Syrian political prisoners.

The unrest also spread to Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, albeit on a smaller scale, as a number of impromptu pro-democracy demonstrations were held as a show of solidarity with the rioters. In response, several hundred riot officers, wearing helmets and bearing plastic shields, were stationed around Damascus University and in a predominately Kurdish suburb nearby. Additionally, the Kurdish quarters of Damascus, Aleppo, and Haleb were subjected to a curfew.

The behavior of Syrian riot police led US State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli to urge Syria “to refrain from using increasingly repressive measures to ostracize a minority that has asked for a greater acceptance and integration into Syrian life.”

But events only escalated on Monday as Syria sealed off its borders with Iraq after Iraqi Kurd fighters threatened to enter the country if the violent clashes between Syrian security forces and Syrian Kurds were not brought to an end.

Also on Monday, Haaretz reported that an American team had landed in northern Syria to help ease tensions, and that Assad had dispatched his brother, Colonel Maher al-Assad, along with Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, to Qamoshli to negotiate with the leaders of the revolt.

Reverberations from the uprising were also felt in Europe, where 60 pro-democracy Kurds in Brussels stormed Belgium’s Syrian embassy on Saturday to protest the Ba’ath Party’s brutal crackdown on the rioters. On Monday, another 60 Kurdish activists took over the Syrian consulate in Geneva, in what they said was an attempt to draw attention to “the massacre of Kurdish civilians being carried out by Syrian army and police forces.”

The Kurds agreed to leave the consulate after a few hours on condition that a letter would be sent on their behalf to the United Nations.

The desperate measures used by Europe’s Kurds have only drawn more attention to Syria’s ongoing human rights abuses at a time when Assad is looking to strengthen his ties with the European Union.
Even worse for Assad, plans are already being laid by the Kurds for additional protests in Europe, as well as a march in front of the Syrian embassy in Washington, DC, on March 19.

For the Kurds, like for many Syrians, the horrific sights and sounds that accompanied the riots in northern Syria were all too familiar. In 1982, Hafez Assad – the deceased father of Bashar – responded with overwhelming force to an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the central Syrian city of Hama.

Using special forces, helicopters, tanks, heavy artillery and, according to some reports, cyanide gas, the Syrian army massacred more than 20,000 men, women, and children in its efforts to root out Hama’s Muslim Brotherhood influence.

Reached by cellular phone on Sunday, a Kurdish activist who was present during the Qamoshli riots of this past weekend drew a parallel to the carnage of Hama: “I don’t know what will come next,” he said. “I am afraid that no one will come to our aid. If there is no pressure from the outside, this will be a prelude to another massacre just like in 1982.”

The young Syrian president vowed to march Syria into the new millennium, but his track record reveals a road that takes his country back to darker times. The increasing attention given to Syria may at least ensure that the next rally doesn’t result in a massacre. And the more voices of reform, the greater the chance to turn the tide in Syria.

Boms is a fellow at the Council of Democracy and Tolerance and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Stakelbeck is head writer for the Investigative Project, a Washington, DC-based counter-terrorism research institute.

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