July 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A message from the Syrian opposition: “We just want to thank our sponsors in the CIA, MI6, Mossad, al-Qaeda, Qatar and the House of Saud for their generous financial support and high tech communications equipment.”
against Syria’s President Bashar Assad in the central Gaza Strip in
late June. (Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, File)
As the Syrian uprising gathered momentum and the Syrian regime escalated its repression against what started out as a peaceful revolt, concerns have emerged about the impact of the uprising on Palestinian refugees in Syria, who make up just over 2 percent of Syria’s total population.
The Palestinian political elite in Syria have been divided. Some factions have desperately attempted to appear neutral, distancing themselves from the unrest. Others, such as Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC, Fatah al-Intifada, and the Palestinian-Baathist militia al-Sa’iqa, have actively supported the regime, bolstering its propaganda campaigns and crushing civil dissent inside the camps.
In stark contrast to the moribund, aging political leadership, Palestinian-Syrian youth activists, who prior to the eruption of the uprising had focused their activism on Palestine, have participated in the uprising since the very beginning as demonstrators; organizers of aid and relief work for wounded and internally-displaced Syrians; or as citizen journalists, photographers and media activists. The hub of their activism, however, remained outside the camps for most of the uprising.
Never were the tensions among Syria’s Palestinians as discernible as during the aftermath of last year’s Naksa Day protests on June 5, when dozens of unarmed Palestinians were killed by the Israeli occupation army in the occupied Golan Heights border area. Yarmouk inhabitants and martyrs’ families set the PFLP-GC building ablaze in a strong denunciation of the faction’s role in mobilizing to instigate the youths to march back home without any protection despite the anticipated deadly reaction by the Israeli army.
The faction engaged in a pathetically naked attempt to deflect attention from the regime’s crackdown. Several Palestinians were killed in the clashes that ensued between Yarmouk residents and armed PFLP-GC gunmen following the funeral. However, with the exception of the Syrian navy’s attack on the al-Raml refugee camp last summer and the occasional Syrian army shelling on refugee camps in Daraa, Hama and Homs, the situation in the refugee camps remained cautiously quiet.
Intifada in the camps
Since February, the al-Yarmouk camp has regularly held protests in solidarity with the besieged Syrian cities and towns. It participated in the Damascus general strike on May 29, 2012. The protests would normally pass quietly without being attacked by Syrian security forces.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the abduction and then killing of 13 Palestinian Liberation Army fighters from the Nayrab refugee camp in Aleppo. Though the identity of the killers is unknown, the killings sparked a large protest in Yarmouk on July 12, and an even larger protest the next day. Buoyant chants of “God bless the Free Syrian Army”, “From Syria to Palestine, one people not two”, and “Long live Syria and down with Assad” echoed in the camp’s streets. The Syrian army opened fire at protesters and for the first time, clashes between the regime army and the FSA broke out inside the camp, marking a significant tipping point. The Local Coordination Committee of Yarmouk camp called for mass protests and a general strike to protest the killings.
Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman of the Syrian Foreign Ministry, described Palestinians in Syria as “guests” and cynically told them to “leave Syria for one of the Arab democracies” if they misbehave. Makdissi’s Facebook statement, which he later deleted, triggered outrage and highlighted the complicated nature of Palestinian participation in the uprising.
“We always warned against pushing the camp into the uprising, but no one listened,” tweeted an anti-Assad Yarmouk resident following the massacre. The International Committee of the Red Cross recently described the situation in Syria as a civil war. Thus, concerns of being “stuck” in the middle of a civil war or intervening in “internal” affairs are perfectly legitimate and understandable. Active opposition to the Syrian regime poses serious risks to Palestinian refugees.
The most imminent scenario is that the general violence that has marred the country for the last 16 months would spill over to the camps. Despite their under-privileged status as stateless refugees, Palestinians in refugee camps have been relatively safer than neighboring Syrian districts in besieged cities, leading several internally displaced families to seek asylum in the Palestinian camps. Meanwhile, the regime has mostly avoided launching direct attacks on refugee camps, particularly Yarmouk, in order not to alienate an already divided population.
However, as shown by the attack on unarmed protesters in Yarmouk, the Syrian regime has not backed down on attacking Palestinian refugees, dare they “misbehave.”
The situation could further deteriorate in the event of clashes between the regime army and armed opposition fighters. Yarmouk camp is a strategically important area that borders Midan, Tadamun, and al-Hajar al-Aswad — Damascene neighborhoods that have seen intense clashes between the army and the FSA in the last few days. This raises the possibility that the camp could turn into a niche area of battle. A less likely – but perhaps more dangerous – scenario is an intra-Palestinian collision between regime loyalists and opponents. The clashes that followed the Naksa Day protests last year served to expose the tensions enveloping the Palestinian community in Syria; the current unrest could foment them.
The searing memories of the destruction of Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon are still haunting and vivid five years on; the fears of a similar scenario taking place in Syria are not completely far-fetched despite the glaring differences between the two situations.
The myth of neutrality
In spite of the aforementioned perils, the participation of Palestinian-Syrian youth in the uprising seems inevitable and unavoidable. Contrary to Palestinian refugees in neighboring Lebanon who are dehumanized and denied basic rights, Palestinians in Syria have long enjoyed rights equal to those of Syrian citizens in most respects, including health, education and employment. Equality is not a favor that the Assad family bestowed upon Palestinians: Law 60, which grants Palestinian refugees near equality with Syrian nationals, was passed in 1956 by a democratically elected parliament under the leadership of the widely admired former president, Shoukri al-Quwatli. Though strongly bound to the Palestinian cause, many Palestinians in Syria, particularly second- and third-generation refugees, have assimilated into Syrian society.
So, how all of a sudden, have Palestinians become “outsiders” who should refrain from intervening in “internal” Syrian affairs?
The irony is especially striking since the Syrian regime has long crowned itself as the guardian of the Palestinian cause and Pan-Arabism. Moreover, it has – since the uprising – used the Palestinian cause to whitewash its crimes and defend the indefensible. Another question that begs to be asked is: What are ‘internal’ Syrian affairs, and what constitutes an intrusion in those affairs? Should Palestinians cease providing shelter and aid for wounded and displaced Syrians in the name of respecting “internal” affairs? Should they abstain from protesting against Assad’s military tyranny in the name of respecting Syria’s sovereignty? Not only are the boundaries extremely vague, neutrality in the Syrian crisis is a myth.
Additionally, it is impossible to expect Palestinians who were born, raised, educated in Syria – who have lived their entire lives there – to sit on the fence. It is also a false dichotomy to think that a sense of belonging to Syria negates the Palestinian identity and roots of refugees, who have a sacred, inalienable right of return to Palestine. Moreover, to claim that they are “used by both sides” is a profound insult to the Palestinians who freely chose to protest against the Syrian regime. Such a claim suggests that anti-regime Palestinians have no free will or autonomy. The Palestinian population in Syria is diverse and no one, including prominent Palestinian intellectuals and activists outside Syria, has the right to speak in their name and decide for them.
When one considers all the complexities and uncertainty plaguing the situation in Syria, staying on the sidelines no longer appears to be a feasible option.
It is both painfully ironic and incredibly moving that Yarmouk, built to host ethnically cleansed Palestinians, has now turned into a safe haven for Syrians fleeing the shelling on Tadamon and Midan; that UNRWA schools became shelters in the last few days; and that Palestinian residents of the camp have donated mattresses, meals and medicine for their wounded Syrian neighbors. These acts of solidarity have been beacons of inspiration amid the endless cycle of violence and grief that has descended upon Syria.
Hopefully a subtitled English version soon
|July 21, 2012 01:26 AM|
|By Rami G. Khouri|
The accelerating pace of events inside Syria has raised expectations that Bashar Assad’s regime is on the verge of collapsing, though nobody seems to know when and how this will happen, or how the post-Assad transition will play out. The regime is fatally injured, because it is losing control of strategic patches of territory to the rebels, and it is losing credibility and confidence with those who have supported and served it for decades, especially security agency personnel.
This week’s fighting in Damascus and the bombing of the national security council meeting indicate that if the regime cannot protect its top military officers, whom can it protect? That is the question certainly being asked by thousands of Syrians who now serve in the regime’s military and political organizations. If Bashar and Maher Assad cannot protect their brother-in-law and chief muscle man and enforcer Assef Shawkat, how can they possibly protect lowly foot soldiers, senior officers, Shabbiha gangs, and the three-dozen remaining Baath Party faithful in the country? The consequences of such hesitation and questioning by regime loyalists and apparatchiks when it comes to the regime’s will determine the pace of the regime’s collapse.
Trying to predict how and when the Assad regime will fall is fascinating, but an inexact science. All we can say for sure now is that the regime is moving down that fateful path that has been traveled by all other such militarily strong regimes that eventually collapse when they lose the single most important ingredient for their incumbency: public confidence that the regime and the single top leader can stay in power and provide the combination of protection, patronage and privilege that are the glue of such regimes.
This was the case with the shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, Suharto in Indonesia, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and dozens of other collapsed autocracies around the world. Assad, like them, is strong in military terms, but weak and vulnerable by any other standard, and totally lacking in legitimacy and respect in the eyes of the majority of his own people – the ultimate criteria that determine the fate of a regime.
The battles in Damascus, the lethal bombing of the meeting of top security officials Wednesday, and the Free Syrian Army’s capture of several border posts on Thursday indicate that the situation in Syria will continue to evolve as it has for the past 16 months: Incremental and continuing military and diplomatic advances by the opposition groups will combine with the government’s inability to do anything beyond using brute force to quell the rebellion, leading to the steady contraction of the regime’s control of Syrian land and people.
At some point soon, the movement of those loyalists deciding to flee the regime will abruptly increase. Panicked low- and mid-level security personnel will abandon their posts and uniforms and melt back into civilian life, and opposition forces will take control of key installations, such as border crossings and provincial police posts. When opposition fighters obtain more sophisticated anti-tank and shoulder-mounted ground-to-air missiles, as is happening now, the regime will lose two of its key military advantages, and the end will then come quickly.
Everything going on at the U.N. Security Council is now irrelevant, and has been for about a month, for the center of gravity of this political struggle shifted some time ago to military developments inside Syria. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice’s protestations against the Russian and Chinese vetoes of resolutions to pressure Syria are pathetic gibberish, given the much worse track record of the United States in vetoing resolutions that seek to force Israel to comply with international law and morality. The U.S. and Russia at the U.N. are acting like children, with their self-serving hypocrisy and selfishness. We just have to accept that the Security Council does not function when the superpowers shift into infantile mode, and talk nonsense. We should keep our gaze instead on more important things, like developments inside Syria.
This leads me to conclude that the bigger story that links Syria with the other Arab uprisings and recent Middle Eastern developments is that the will and actions of indigenous Arabs, Iranians and Turks will always have a greater impact than anything done by powers abroad. The striking inability of the Americans, Russians and their assorted allies to shape events in Syria follow similar serial failures in recent decades in their attempts to promote Arab-Israeli peace, democratic transformations, economic trajectories or other such strategic issues.
Only when local people across the Middle East took matters into their own hands did conditions change, and history resume. The sentiments of ordinary people such as those in Bab al-Hawa, Midan, Deir al-Zor and Deraa are far more significant that the pronouncements of the world’s powers. The sooner we learn this lesson, the better off we will all be.
The colonial era may finally be drawing to a close.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)
يبرود || ألاف من الآحرار في تشيع شهداء المجزرة 18/7/2012 جـ2