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Syria And The Armed Gangs Controversy – Analysis

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I have taken up the “armed gangs controversy” and on my website in the comment section, Syrians have debated whether the opposition has produced militant elements that are killing Syrian soldiers. A number of analysts, such as Majd Eid, who joined in the debate on France 24 yesterday, continue to argue that there is not a violent side to the uprising. They insist that Syrian soldiers are killing fellow soldiers, not opposition elements. This killing is carried out when security personnel refuse orders to shoot at crowds, they insist. So far, no evidence has surfaced to demonstrate that Syrian military have shot their fellow soldiers for refusing to carry out orders. Most evidence supports government statements that armed opposition elements have been shooting security personnel.

Syria
Syria

This controversy arose in April during the protests in Banyas, when nine soldiers were killed while traveling down the main highway in two transport vehicles outside of the city. Activists claimed that soldiers in Banyas were executed by fellow soldiers for refusing to shoot at demonstrators. This story turned out to be fictional, but was carried by most of the Western Press and never corrected. I wrote about this controversy on April 14 under the title: Western Press Misled – Who Shot the Nine Soldiers in Banyas? Not Syrian Security Forces. The reason I took an interest in this story is because my wife’s cousin, Lt. Col. Yasir Qash`ur, was one of the nine soldiers killed on April 10. We know him well. We spoke with Yasir’s brother-in-law, Colonel `Uday Ahmad, who was sitting in the back seat of the truck in which Yasir and several of the nine soldiers were killed. `Uday told us that two military trucks were ambushed as they crossed a highway bridge by well armed men who were hiding behind the median of the highway and on the tops of buildings at the edge of the road. They raked the two trucks with automatic fire, killing nine. The incident had nothing to do with soldiers refusing orders. His description of what happened so contradicted the reports I was reading in the press that I began to dig around. Later video footage of the shooting surfaced and was shown on Syrian TV. It corroborated Uday’s story. Western press and analysts did not want to recognize that armed elements were becoming active. They preferred to tell a simple story of good people fighting bad people. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the opposition was peaceful and was being met with deadly government force and snipers. One only wonders why that story could not have been told without also covering the reality – that armed elements, whose agenda was not peaceful, were also playing a role.

In the bloody battles at Jisr ash-Shaghour most of the Western Press again repeated opposition claims that some 100 Syrian soldiers were killed not by opposition elements but by their own colleagues. The Western press insisted that Syrian military elements were killed in the city by fellow soldiers for refusing orders to shoot. Government claims that the soldiers were killed by armed elements who ambushed and overwhelmed them, were dismissed. Today, teh video footage that has surfaced is fairly conclusive in corroborating the original government version of events: the soldiers stationed in the town were overrun by armed and organized opposition.  Here is a video of some of the soldiers before they were killed. The first minute or two of this video shows the soldiers after being shot. This is unedited footage of the bodies before they were carried away on trucks.

In the Hama fighting, the video depicting dead bodies being thrown off a bridge into a river has been the subject of controversy. This video made by comparing Google Earth footage of the bridge to the actual video seems fairly conclusive in proving that the footage is new, is from Hama, and does depict opposition elements throwing the bodies of soldiers from the highway bridge into the `Asi River just north of Hama on the highway to Aleppo.

So what is the meaning of the emergence of armed opposition elements?

A prominent anti-government activist speaking on CNN said it best. Here is the CNN report by Arwa Damon and Nada Husseini of Aug. 2, 2011:

One prominent anti-government activist, who asked not to be named because of the dangers that could arise from the release of the information, told CNN the state TV account was correct. The bodies are those of Syrian secret police killed by Syrian fighters from Iraq who have joined the anti-government fight, said the activist, who gets information about the goings-on in Syria from an extensive network of informants.

That same activist stressed that the antagonists are not representative of the protest movement. Violent fringe elements have appeared during the Syrian tumult. One study last month from the International Crisis Group said some anti-government elements have taken up arms. However, that report said, “the vast majority of casualties have been peaceful protesters, and the vast majority of the violence has been perpetrated by the security services.

The activist said the emergence of this video is a double-edged sword for protesters.

On the one hand, the peaceful demonstrators need to become aware of the existence of fringe elements, he said. This would encourage more people to reject both the regime and these types of attacks and maintain the aims of peaceful protest, he said. At the same time, he added, the incident gives credence to the Syrian government’s assertion that it is targeting “armed gangs.” Such violence, he said, could cause the international community to hesitate in continuing its mounting pressure against the Syrian regime.

Most of the supporters of the revolutionary movement have responded to these videos by asking, “What does anyone expect? Are Syrians to simply wait to be killed? Of course violence will be met by violence. It is natural and the only surprise is that it has been so long in coming.”

This is a compelling argument. The Syrian opposition has been slow to arm in its effort to overthrow the Baathist state. The Free Officers Movement is gathering steam. The most recent video statement by the FOM shows that its membership is growing, although it is still only in the earliest formation. The leader declares that they will defend civilians against the “barbaric actions of the regime and their Shabbiha.” Other armed organizations are taking to the streets but none have officially declared their existence and set out political goals. This will undoubtedly happen in the coming months.

From the outset, this has been a war of videos. This video of a wife saying goodbye to her husband, killed in Hama on Aug 2 is heartbreaking. Such videos act as a call to arms.

The regime will battle to the end and still has much fight in it. The military has many advantageous over the fragmented opposition. It is unlikely that the regime will “collapse,” as some activists suggest or just fade away Ceausescu-like. If it is to be defeated, it will be on the battlefield and by force. It is hard to imagine any other ending. Of course, should both Damascus and Aleppo come out to demonstrate in large numbers, the breakdown of order will be hastened, but the military and Baath Party will not give up. Syria’s divisions are too deep. The fear of revenge and ethnic cleansing will galvanize those who have backed the present order for decades.  Had the Syrian leadership been willing to hand over power peacefully or establish some sort of constitutional convention, it would have done so already.

The poverty and loss of dignity for so many Syrians is a crushing part of Syrian reality. Thirty-two percent of Syrians live on two dollars or less a day. That is a scary figure. It will get much worse as the loss of jobs and economic hardships begin to multiply. Syria is filled with people who have little to lose, who have little education, and few prospects of improving their chances for a better and more dignified life. The potential for violence and lawlessness is large. Most worrying is the lack of leadership among opposition forces.

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis maintains Syria Comment and teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its surrounding countries. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 3,000 readers a day. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis regularly travels to Washington DC to consult with the State Department and other government agencies. He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio.

2 thoughts on “Syria And The Armed Gangs Controversy – Analysis

  • Avatar
    August 4, 2011 at 6:05 am
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    It is the sort of situation which you better arm yourself, they will kill you either way. If the opposition are not getting around in tanks and APC’s they are unarmed. That guy has a machete and that guy has 12G and the Government are using 125mm decision makers. Is there really an argument to be made.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 4, 2011 at 1:38 pm
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    If we accept what you are claiming Mr. Landis and say that some “security forces” and “thugs” have been killed by the some armed protesters, don’t you think that its their right to “at least” defend themselves while they are being slaughtered by those forces?
    AND .. if we also accepts such claims of yours: Does killing 10 or 20 thugs justify for the Syrian regime killing THOUSANDS of SYRIANS? And bombing cities? does that justify torturing kids and killing them!?
    What are you trying to do in here is defending some bunch of criminals who are committing massacres in every city and village in Syria just because the Syrian people are asking for their freedom.
    The only armed party that we can clearly see in here is the Syrian army, security forces, and thugs. These forces are committing crimes against humanity for goodness sake and you are doing nothing here except finding excuses for them for their crimes!!!

    Reply

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