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Assad’s visit to Bab Amr shows that history repeats itself in disgusting ways

Assad walks among the “residents” of Bab Amr…

On the 27th March, Syria’s embattled President, Bashar al-Assad made a visit to the former opposition stronghold of Bab Amr in Homs, Syria. This neighbourhood had been in the firm hands of the Free Syrian Army for nearly three quarters of a year, serving as their main base. It was finally taken by the Syrian army on the 1st March. The government ominously declared prior to the capture that the neighbourhood was being "cleaned".

The fall of Bab Amr was accompanied by the tragic, and sadly predictable tales of atrocites emerged after the fall. Among them, a shocking tale (all too believable, given the brutal nature of the Syrian government’s response to demands for change, peaceful or otherwise) of 17 FSA soldiers being massacred with knives after being caught and attempting to flee the area, Avaaz alleged they may even have been civilians. There were also claims from defected soldiers that they had orders to shoot anyone on sight, claims that 36 people were rounded up and summarily executed, etc. In all, all manner of atrocities were reported.

In his visit Assad was surrounded by people showing their support (or at least appearing to; I’m betting that many were Mukhabarat or pro-Assad civilians driven into the area. Would the genuine residents (and I feel I can say that with a degree of certainty) cheer on the figurehead for the brutal family fiefdom which killed their children and reduced their homes and lives to rubble? If they are people of the area then it is all too likely they were paid or coerced (the latter much more likely) to attend.

In his words to the people of the area (but were they, really?) he claimed that life would return to the area and it would be “better than it was before.” You can rearrange bricks, pour cement and restore utilities. But how do you tell the mother who has no child running home after school to greet her with an angelic smile that life will be “better”. How do you restore the innocent, untormented minds of the young who have witnessed butchers massacring innocents? His words are hollow and utterly, utterly cynical. 

The real reason that he made this venture was to use it as a thinly-veiled victory parade. He left unspoken in words what he gave voice to in actions. As he smugly strode down the devastated streets with his typically unassuming gait, he was proclaiming: “Look what I can do to you if you raise your voice against me. I have won.”  

That probably also explains why this wasn’t streamed live. If many of these people had been normal people then they could have taken a desperate risk and started to heckle and boo their leader and humiliate him in the same way that Ceausescu’s people humiliated him in front of Romania and the whole world in 1989.

As one activist by the name of said: ”He thinks he won and scored a great victory” (speaking by telephone). ”He wants to show the world he defeated and put down a revolution. But … it seems he can’t even release the video until he has left Homs. That is not control.” 

But he hasn’t won by any means. There’s suppressing physical territory and people with bullets and tanks and there’s crushing an idea. Nobody can do the latter, not even the omnipotent and omniscient “Doctor” Bashar (who should have had his medial accreditations withdrawn several times over by now, considering how he’s made doctors and others violate the Hippocratic Oath in hospitals and refuse to treat injured opponents).

…Now look at this image of Himmler looking contemptuously 
at a Dachau prisoner. Similar, eh?

I noticed one particularly unsettling historical similarity. On January 20th 1941, Heinrich Himmler, escorted by his subordinates (notice how Assad is escorted around by sycophants in the video, an image which looks eerily similar) walked among the scenes of suffering and death at the height of Nazi power, viewing the death and destruction he himself had created with a similar aloof, barely-concealed air of satisfaction. His standing among the people he made to suffer is exactly the same kind of victorious gloating at the height of his power which Assad is enjoying in, militarily, could be said to be the height of his. History repeats itself. 

I could go further and compare his visit to Himmler’s visit to Auchwitz, but that wouldn’t be half as appropriate. The Nazis targeted specific people and there was one sole leader. Assad represents an extended family fiefdom and arbitrarily targets everyone and anyone against him.

But I could easily compare Assad and Himmler. Both seemingly unassuming and not at all dictatorial, both rather vain with something of an inferiority complex, and both mass-murderers. History always repeats itself in more ways than one. In these instances, most of these “ideologies” these murderers follow are mere rubber-stamps for murderous actions. Assad is more Nazi than Ba’athist. Nasser would turn in his grave in disgust.

If Kofi Annan thinks he has got anywhere in dealing with Assad, then he will be disappointed

Recently the UN peace envoy Kofi Annan travelled to Syria (after initial reluctance on the part of the Syrian government) to meet with the ever-embattled President and representative of his family Mafia - both a single person - Bashar al-Assad, the man who’s security forces (and they can conclusively be called his security forces under the legal responsibility invested in the President) have been killing peaceful protesters and  for months, spawning the latter to protect the former.

Every single agreement that was supposed to halt the violence has has next-to-no effect on the levels of bloodshed on the part of the security forces. The Arab League peace plan in November 2011 went completely unheeded by the Syrian government and their was still unabated killing in the form of around 250 deaths between the 2nd November (the date of the signing) and the 12th November.  The Arab League Monitoring mission in December 2011 merely delayed the time period in which the security forces would open fire on demonstrations - as soon as the observers were out of sight.

Every single plan proposed has either been rejected by Damascus in the name of the “sovereignty” of Syria, has been paid lip service in the form of meaningless rhetoric, or has been downright ignored. 

Now Mr Annan thinks he may have made a change. He has presented Mr Assad with a series of "concrete proposals" to curb the violence. Meaning that he has done very little that most other international actors have already done or tried to do. Condemn the violence, hand over some proposals (backed by next to no practical action  to ensure that the government enforces them) to the President, shake hands, leave.

Will his “concrete proposals” (which he has yet to elaborate on but will likely be nothing innovative) change anything?

Unlikely. The regime has shown time and time again that the only respect it has is for violence and violent methods of suppression. Notice how Assad was never talking about any kind of negotiated settlement until the armed resistance came about as a reaction to his brutality. On the 30th March he was rambling on about avoiding “subjecting the reform process to momentary conditions, otherwise it will be counterproductive”. The only negotiated settlement that came about (and the only significant development of this kind throughout the entire conflict) was after fierce Free Syrian Army resistance for days on end against  almost impossible odds, and government acceptance that they could not dislodge the fighters for the time being. This is evident from the fact that General Shawkat himself (Assad’s brother-in-law) was reportedly leading the ceasefire negotiations himself. A sure sign that the Assad’s were listening to force and force alone.

Now, after repeated rejections and ignoring of every single peace settlement or plan, Mr Annan believes that he can somehow solve this crisis through negotiation? He even talked of reforms (we all know how swift and progressive Assad’s reforms are) which would create a "solid foundation for a democratic Syria".

All this bloodshed and some still think that this rotten travesty of hereditary Ba’athism can be reformed? Have around 10,000 deaths not shown the answer to this question? Someone pull Mr Annan out of March 2011.

Talk of “reforms” and leaving Mr Assad with a list of "a set of concrete proposals" to end the violence will get zilch achieved, save an increase in hot air while more innocents are killed. Mr Annan would do better to try to gain better access to weapons for the Free Syrian Army to help them defend these innocents. They can’t fend off the Shabeeeha while hiding behind pieces of paper, can they?

Pieces of paper which will end up down the back of the Assad family sofa, alongside Asma’s credibility and the new “constitution”.

Scores of civilians have been killed since Mr Annan departed with no agreement in his hands whatsoever, because Assad says a solution is impossible as long as the “terrorist groups” continue throughout the country. Read between the propaganda lines and change “terrorist groups” to “the oppositon movement”.

Of course, Assad hopes to sign an agreement with some meaningless opposition sock puppets as soon as he has wiped them out. But if he thinks he can do so then he is extremely deluded. When in history have bullets crushed ideals?

The government only respects violence and will fall by the same road. Not by “concrete proposals” amounting to hot air and no tangible action.

Does Khamis Gaddafi have yet another life?

Khamis Gaddafi, youngest son of the late GaddafiAccording to various sources, Gaddafi’s son Khamis has surfaced once more and been captured near Regdalin and Jmail in Libya, close to the borders of Tunisia. 

He allegedly has an amputated leg and his doctor was captured alongside him. 

This is somewhat confusing. This man has at least five lives. 

  • He was reported to have died when a Kamikaze pilot crashed his plane into Gaddafi’s compound around the 13th March. Libyan state TV then showed footage of him greeting regime supporters on a vehicle on the 29th March. 
  • He was then reported to have died on the 5th August in an airstrike on the town of Zlitan. Then he turned up again on state TV speaking to a woman allegedly injured in a NATO airstrike. 
  • On the 22nd August 2011, CNN reported that a body found in Tripoli may have been the body of Khamis. This proved to be an unsubstantiated claim. 
  • He seemed to have used up all his lives on the 29th August 2011. His Toyota land cruiser was reportedly attacked by an Apache helicopter and destroyed. Two days later the Guardian interviewed a captured former bodyguard of Khamis. Abdul Salam Taher al-Fargi, 17, reported that "I was in the truck behind him…when his car was hit. He was burned." All the other bodyguards captured told the same story, and thus is gained much credibility and was taken to be true. At first, the pro-Gaddafi al-Rai TV based in Syria denied the report. The NTC claimed it was certain he had been killed near Tripoli and buried in Bani Walid. One witness said he saw a weeping Saif attend the funeral. This story looked unequivocally to be true when al-Rai confirmed that Khamis had died on the 29th August, in an announcement on the 15th October. 

There were rumours (via an NTC official) that Gaddafi’s other son Saif told his captures (after his capture on November 15th) that his brother was hiding in Tarhouna. However no evidence was provided for this and it was soon forgotten in the aftermath of the demise of Gaddafi.

However, this recent news is curious to say the least. Khamis’ burned-out vehicle was seen, Jeremy Bowen’s notebook that the journalist lost and somehow got into Khamis’ hands, which was then used for jotting down military plans in for the defence of the regime, the testimony of the guards, etc. All the evidence points to his demise.  

Yet, if he is still alive, what could have (hypothetically) happened instead? Could the NTC have known he was still alive (hence the testimony of the NTC official) yet not wanted to release the information for the sake of PR (embarrassing to have one of Gaddafi’s sons on the loose and admit you cannot find him), could the bodyguards and others have lied and let their leader escape out of loyalty, or did he escape severely wounded.  

Saif Gaddafi suffered fairly serious injury as a result of a similar NATO strike on his convoy and yet escaped for a few more weeks. Could Khamis have gone one better and lost his leg, yet have gone on to live to die another day (or another few times)? 

Who knows? This may all be rumour and hearsay. But keep an open mind. For all we know, the former commander of the 32nd Brigade and late Libyan dictator’s son is still alive, and maybe with a few more tricks - or lives - up his sleeves.

Why do so many canonise dictators for anti-Western rhetoric?

As an active reader of the news I read from many news blogs and sites, such as the Al Jazeera live blog and comment is free articles and blogs for the guardian.
However one thing has caught my eye. That is, the amount of people effectively being sympathisers and apologists for dictators. It was rampant prior to the end of the civil war in Libya in October of last year. Now it is especially so regarding Syria’s President Assad. 

I’ll give one of the best and most ludicrous examples of such a post. It appeared on a post on a Guardian live blog documenting the progress of the Arab Spring in Syria, Libya etc:
"Long live Assad!! This is all NATO and the corrupt Middle-east rulers fault. They encouraged and pertook in the overthrow of North African countries. nO 

Long live Assad! He should defend his country against the NATO terrorists on his soil. He saw what happened to Gadaffi he needs to take no chances and crush the NATO / Saudi/Qatar terrorists. 

I love how NATO/Saudi/Qatar are now the toothless dogs! All the lies about helping Libyans has been exposed.”  

This individual clearly did not hail from an Arabic state such as Libya. Furthermore he has Gaddafi’s green flag as his avatar and was sycophantically praising Assad in the manner in which you would expect a party hack to have flattered and paid deference to the man himself.

So why is he (and so many others like him) canonising Assad? I believe from observation that there are several reasons for this ludicrous sympathy, and I will try and explain several here:

These people are nearly always huge cynics about Western interventionism. You could argue that this is with good reason and that they have become so after witnessing the debacle of Afghanistan and the disaster of Iraq. The latter was publicly outed (and is now common knowledge) to have been concocted around a tissue of lies, and the former a deeply unpopular war (initially with strong support as a means to capture Osama Bin Laden) which has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians and hundreds of soldiers in the “graveyard of empires”. 

Conspiracy theorists and the conspiratorial minded can now have a field day. Many are convinced by the anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric of Assad due to their (arguably justified) cynicism with Western foreign policy. This means that everyone (especially the West) is at fault but the dictator. 

This has especially come to light during the Arab Spring. The Western backed dictatorships (the likes of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain) often come under strong online condemnation by these individuals and the fact that they are repressing peaceful protests is accepted without question. 

Yet when it gets to the anti-Western dictatorships (like Assad’s Syria) the situation is very different. Due to the universal cynicism regarding the double standards and hypocrisy of US/Western foreign policy it means that they see what they want to see. 

For example, Saudi Arabia (a medieval-like monarchic, Wahhabi state) is a strong ally of the US. Human rights are virtually non-existent. Yet it (ironically) criticises the Assad government for the crackdown on peaceful protesters, yet does not mention the role it played itself in helping to crush protests in Bahrain, or the total lack of freedoms for its own people. 

Some people (those prepared to see any dictator who ups the anti-Western rhetoric in a vain attempt to get legitimacy is some kind of anti-Imperialist hero) as a result think they can put 2+2 together due to Western double-standards and the nature of the regime, and as a result they disregard the overwhelming evidence of atrocities on the part of the despot (e.g. Assad and his government) and buy into the propaganda. Then the protesters and armed opposition fighters become “Saudi terrorists” or “NATO mercenaries” and the government is justifiably trying to crush them. 

Some are more subtly cynical than others. Thus, you get those who will pick hairs with every aspect of the stories which emerge (details of those killed, names, damage, etc) and try and make them look like utter rubbish. Some have even claimed that violence from the opposition has been ongoing since day one.

Then you get those who see the capitalist system as being a cancer exclusively unleashed by the West, and see the Syrian crisis as having been started by the machinations of the West to gain a political and economic foothold in Syria. Many belong to the fanatical left – Marxists, anarchists, etc. Some of them are rabidly anti-Western and thus look for alternatives and are taken in by the “ideals” of these dictatorships.  

The likes of the “direct democracy” that the late Gaddafi’s “Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” was based around is one of the best examples of such. Little do they see that these ideologies are far from beliefs, but a means to an end for these despots. Saddam in Iraq used Ba’athism to justify his rule of tyranny, and article 8 of the Syrian constitution (which stipulates that "[t]he leading party in the society and the state is the … Ba’ath Party” has been ruthlessly exploited by the Assad family as a means to an end for their mafia-like dictatorship, to say nothing of the “central role” the party plays.

This tautology achieves nothing. We can bicker all day long about the amount of dead and how they were specifically killed, where troops are deployed, who is responsible for the most violence, if the opposition should arm itself…  

The bottom line is that none of this matters. To deny the evidence placed right in front of your eyes in the form of hundreds of hours of eyewitness accounts, thousands of hours of video footage, testimony of diplomats and so on, is simply being an apologist for a family of murderers.

The bombardment of Homs shows one thing: Syrian government desperation

Over the last week, the Syrian government has subjugated the embattled city of Homs to a furious bombardment with hundreds of rockets and mortars since the 3rd February and is currently ongoing. It has toppled houses, caused residents to scramble for their lives, and killed anything from around 55 to 416 civilians, with five Free Syrian Army soldiers killed. 

According to the Telegraph, an activist names Abu Abdul al-Homsi gave an eyewitness account. It follows: "We can’t count all the bodies from the streets and the collapsed buildings. Anyone who tries to go on the street might be killed - there are snipers," said Abu Abdu al-Homsi, spokesman for the Syrian Revolutionary Council, an opposition group, in Homs. "An old woman - her son was shot and killed in the street, she went to get his body and was shot dead too." 

I have heard numerous stories telling of exactly the same thing, and seen footage corroborating the claims. The wounded and injured all show signs of sniper wounds, or wounds sustained from horrific explosions. Some videos are too graphic to link to. 

This has been dubbed the "fiercest attack yet" on the besieged, divided city.  Deaths in these numbers have seldom occurred on any other day in Syria, save for the Ramadan Massacre in Hama in late July/early August, killing over 200 people by the end of the latter. 

What does this tell us? Shall we look at the evidence? 

The last time an operation of this scale was mounted was when the city had totally fallen out of government control back in July. In that instance, as many as half a million people flooded the streets of the city to demand the fall of the Assad regime. The government clearly panicked, and wanted to crush this before the Euphoria got any larger. 

This bombardment has come at a time in which the Assad regime is clearly on the defensive. They have lost Zabadani (and are currently trying to reclaim it), they previously lost control of parts of the capital itself and had to engage in heavy fighting to drive them out, and around 2/3 of Homs has fallen out of the control of the government. 

These are similarly desperate times, as they were in July/August. The only difference is the levels of armed resistance have drastically risen by at least 99% in all parts of Syria since the uprising began.  

In Hama in July/August, 8 policemen were killed during the Ramadan massacre. Now the toll is up to about 67 of the security forces in the Hama area. In Homs, casualties amongst the security forces have risen from about 12 to more than 859 since March. This figure was compiled in January and is all too likely to be vastly outdated by now, if we are to believe the allegation that 4-5 are being killed each day. 

The government does not respect anything but force, as I have mentioned repeatedly. Hence it simply acts on instinct and cannot do anything else. What can a regime which respects nothing but force do when guerrilla fighters hold swathes of territory and cannot be rooted out due to the support of the local populace? How can they reach a negotiated settlement by dispersing protesters with bullets? 

They are stumped, but do not know what to do. They do not see that every bullet fired, every civilian killed, every atrocity committed - only makes their demise more imminent. It just pushes the Syrian people out of the Assad’s carefully crafted national climate of fear - from which it is already impossible for them to return to. It is now not a matter of IF the regime falls, but when. 

Sadly, all these acts of desperate violence come with heavy civilian casualties as a consequence of the dictatorial, brutal ignorance of the Assad entourage. But the sacrifice is not in vain. The opposition has an iron resolve and a brave and resilient armed wing which has seemingly significantly degraded the combat capabilities of Assad’s forces. 

In the words of some Benghazi graffiti from the early days of the Libyan revolution: "We Have Broken The Fear Barrier, We Won’t Retreat."

The distance between Assad and ruin? 30 minutes

You may be reading the title with derision in your mind, already thinking that I am writing a somehow naive article as opposed to my usual writings.

Well do not hasten to discredit or judge the metaphorical book from the cover. The title is based around genuine fact.

Since around the 21st January of this year to the 29th/30th, Free Syrian Army forces (composed of defected soldiers and protesters whom have resorted to taking up arms) managed to seize parts of the capital, Damascus. Notable areas are Douma, Saqba, Kfar Batna, etc. 

These areas are/were - yes, you’ve guessed it - 30 minutes from the official residence of Assad, where he is presumably holding out and isolated from reality. Some have even, incredibly, estimated that Assad may have to leave his capital in weeks, or even days, for his own safety.

What’s that you say? Syrian forces have managed to retake the area and thus maintain utter control of the capital? 

I have a feeling this won’t count for much in the long term. You must remember that Syrian government forces managed to take back control of the Bab Amr neighbourhood in Homs, the stronghold of the oppositon and their armed forces. Two months later, they have control of two thirds of Homs and have driven government troops from most of the city. 

Like Homs has been, this area could become a place of touch-and-go urban warfare lasting for months, with the opposition slowly gaining the upper hand due to support of most of the local poplace. 

You can storm any neighbourhood you want with 2000 troops and 50 tanks if you’re in Assad’s position, but there’s nothing you can do to stop these fighters gaining a foothold if you do not have the support of the local poplace. From what I’ve seen, they do not. Guerrilla warfare and long-term clashes will very likely become the norm. 

I’m not the only one who thinks this. The Syrian blogger Ammar Abdulhamid (living in the US) said that: 

"Indeed, and for the foreseeable future, attacks on loyalist troops and security headquarters, checkpoints and convoys will become part of daily life in Damascus and its suburbs in tandem with loyalist crackdown, killings and detentions."  

The government forces seem to be losing on most fronts. They’ve lost most of Homs, face a rising insurgency in Idlib and Hama, they’ve lost control of Zabadani (only 20 miles from the capital), etc. The security forces and military commanders are still largely loyal to the regime, but defections from the lower ranks and an increasing insurgency are substantially draining their abilities to fight back.  

Having said that, the Free Syrian Army has a long way to go yet before it can hold onto large swathes of territory for substantial amounts of time. But at the same time, one could argue that their strength is in their guerrilla tactics and not traditional methods of warfare.

If they can get so close to Assad’s residence in the short term, then they may have him ousted from the city in the long-term. Good luck to them.

The suspension of the Arab League’s mission to Syria is effectively acceptance of failure

Yesterday, the Arab League’s mission to Syria was suspended by the Arab League as the violence in the country worsened. The justification for doing so is allegedly because of the increasing violence.  

The head of the Arab League, Nabil el-Araby, said: ”Given the critical deterioration of the situation in Syria and the continued use of violence … it has been decided to immediately stop the work of the Arab League’s mission to Syria pending presentation of the issue to the league’s council,”  

100 observers are currently in the country, but they will not undertake any more observation missions to conflict hotspots or anywhere in Syria. 

Personally, there is little point in them staying. Nothing they have done or can do will make any tangible, long-term change which could solve the crisis Syria is undergoing. 

Not, that is, as long as Assad refuses to properly acknowledge that an opposition movement even exists, continues to order his troops to shoot peaceful protesters, will not repeal the Ba’ath party’s hegemony in society, and continues to try to stay in power. To do this he would need to repeal article 8 of the Syrian constitution which states that: ”[t]he leading party in the society and the state is the … Ba’ath Party. It leads the National Progressive Front seeking to unify the resources of the masses of the people and place them at the service of the goals of the Arab nation.”

True, the observers have been able to visit opposition protesters, watch their protests and hear their views. They have also been able to see pro-Assad demonstrations and hear the viewpoints of pro-Assad demonstrators. They even got to hear opinions of the Free Syrian Army soldiers they visited.

But what use is this, fundamentally. Often, these observers have had the security forces standing some yards away as they go about their business. As soon as they leave, the security forces open fire on demonstrations or move their armed vehicles and tanks back into the area to continue fighting against opposition forces (the Free Syrian Army).  

Sometimes the security forces have even had the audacity to open fire even when the observers were present. At one point the observers allegedly had to duck from gunfire in Homs.  

You would think that this would at least have helped because the leaders of the observer mission would have considered this an outrage and been able to furiously expostulate and show proof of the Syrian government’s crimes to the world. 

Instead, the head of the mission (General Dabi) claimed that he saw "nothing frightening" in Homs. The only bad thing he seems to have hinted at was that "some places looked a bit of a mess". If he had looked carefully, he would see a city plagued with sectarian killings, battles between security forces and defectors, and rampant murders of civilians by the Syrian government. 

The fact that General Dabi was made head of this mission was detrimental enough. Anyone who has been accused of war crimes and atrocities against civilians surely could not be an impartial observer in such a conflict. What looks like an atrocity to us would probably not be “frightening” to him.  

Besides, observers are only of real use to monitor ceasefires and if nations are agreeing to the clauses of agreements they made. Syria has not; armoured vehicles and tanks are still in most streets. What more must they prove? The killings are captured in thousands of hours of footage, eyewitness accounts, torture and bullet signs on the bodies of victims, names of the dead… 

If anything, the killings have actually risen by 400 people to over 6,400. That is only the official estimate. I shudder to think what the actual figures must be, if those buried in mass graves an unaccounted for, those tortured to death in captivity without their bodies being returned to their families, etc are not counted, which they almost certainly are not.

The Arab League monitor’s presence was basically giving Assad cover to launch more attacks via the implied legitimacy that came with the agreement to the monitors and their subsequent deployment. As long as they negotiated and did deals with his government, the more it made his authority seem legitimate to the outside world and to his embattled people. For what cost? 

The Saudis and Gulf states realised it was a failure and pulled out of the mission last week. The suspension of the mission by the rest of the league is similar acceptance, and with good reason.

The NTC is clearly struggling to govern Libya

Ever since the controversial death of Gaddafi back in August, the NTC has been hampered by a variety of problems.  

The most problematic of those is that of the militias. These militias fought alongside the reguar NTC forces in the war to oust him. They are often made up of those who have a strong sense of loyalty to their tribe or region (the Warfalla and others being among the most significant). With the weak nature of the NTC forces and government they have been able to consolidate control of their tribal/regional location in which they have ties.  

The NTC set a deadline for the militias to either disarm and disperse, or to be integrated into the national army (still forming). It passed in December and still has barely been started; the militias control many towns with little or no unity between them and are suspicious of centralised authority. Often, armed conflict between the militias and NTC forces has escalated after a prisoner from one of them has been taken into custody by the authorities, tortured, or worse. 

The clashes have happened in all Libya’s major cities: Benghazi, and Tripoli amongst them. Often, they have involved the use of heavy weapons in the main residential areas and city centres. In such sensitive areas, any of these incidents has had the potential to ignite into something worse as rivial militias with strong ties to their regions and tribes face each other off in sensitive and populated areas. 

Low and behold. It has happened. On the 23rd January Bani Walid fell out of the control of the NTC. There are two stories as to how this happened: 

  • Some pro-Gaddafi militiamen were detained by NTC forces (and maybe tortured). As a result, a group of 150 Gaddafi loyalists carrying the Green flag (the symbol of Gaddafi’s Libya) attacked the main NTC base in the city and killed four soldiers and trapping others within the base. Mahmud Warfelli, the spokesman of the NTC’s council for Bani Walid, called for help out of fear of an impending massacre. The Gaddafi loyalists then went on to take control of the city and hoist Green Flags. They are still in control of it as of now, although the NTC is deploying military forces to deal with the situation. Armoured units from Misrata have isolated the city and air force jets can apparently be heard.  
  • Local elders allege that the town fell out of the NTC control because the ‘May 28th Brigade’ (a militia force among many others which assisted in the fight against Gaddafi during the fighting in the civil war) arrested and tortured (sadly, a common militia tactic done to those whom they suspect of having loyalties to the former leader). They say the brigade became an oppressor in the city. They deny they have any Gaddafi-related loyalties, although Bani Walid was a Gaddafi stronghold in the civil war (Saif al-Islam hid out there) and one of the last cities to fall to the NTC forces after ferocious fighting. 

Whatever the truth is (and it may be a bit of both; pro Gaddafi graffiti is apparently abundant and people testify as having seen green flags) the point is this: a city has managed to totally fall out of the control of the government three months after the civil war ended. In that time the NTC could have estabilished a strong and integrated local police force, a permanent military base, and a strong government outpost. Not a lightly-guarded outlet that falls to a few AK-47 wielding, fanatical, dictator-supporting lunatics.


What’s worse is that Bani Walid is supposed to be well guarded and supervised by the government. If this is an example of their finest practice, I shudder to think what could happen if this scenario was to be repeated in another militia controlled, much less secure (if that’s possible given the evidence) and ethnically and tribally sensitive city. Misrata fighters, Benghazi fighters and Tripoli fighters often control different areas in close proximity, so the concern is understandable.

I am no Gaddafi supporter, but the Libyan people may now have to say goodbye to their free healthcare (poor as it was) free utilities (water, gas, etc), $50,000 for newly weds etc. I just don’t see how they can provide (especially considering that they now feel obliged to Western, free-market countries) these benefits now. If Libya continues to deteriorate then expect the IMF and/or the World Bank to turn up soon with lovely loan proposals. Or worse, foreign troops to “restore stability”. 

However, faith must be held. The disunity and collapses are not all down to the NTC, but down to the abrupt collapse of the centralised system of repression under Gaddafi. A man who weakened all other institutions and forms of local government to give himself absolute power. The sluggish, ineffective nature of the NTC bureaucracy cannot be held above blame however.

Much needs to be done, and it will not be easy to achieve it. This is probably just the start of the problems the NTC faces in rebuilding Libya into a democracy. If Libyans are truly committed, they will get there. They have shown remarkable resilience so far. My best wishes to them on this difficult journey.

The Free Syrian Army is a serious game changer

The typically touch-and-go patterns of Free Syrian Army attacks and Assad forces’ counterattacks has continued unabated, regardless of the presence of Arab League observers.

 The Free Syrian Army has had trouble holding territory, as the Syrian Air Force has often descended; an infinitely superior advantage to the Free Syrian Army’s largely light weapons. In spite of this, they have remarkably been able to extend their area of operations and held territory, into the countryside around Damascus, areas of Idlib (where the government has made failed attempts to oust them) and the Bab Amr district of Homs.

The regime’s infinitely superior massed armour and well-trained troops (especially of Maher al-Assad’s 4th Division) have not stopped them carrying out lethal attacks against government forces daily, and persuading and accepting numerous military defectors into their ranks (allegedly each time they mount an attack in the vicinity of the regular army). They were even so bold as to stage an attack on the dreaded Mukhabarat (Air Force Intelligence) base to release prisoners.

No matter how many Iranian and Hezbollah mercenaries the regime has placed behind the lines of Syrian soldiers to shoot them if they try to defect, no matter how many sweeps and searches of the countryside, no matter how many families they threaten to punish, they have not been able to defeat the Free Syrian Army. This is remarkable given the number of guns pressed to soldiers backs and into their families’ houses to prevent them defecting, and the fact that they cannot track many of them down, considering the names of each defector must be known to their families and to the authorities.

The fact that the Free Syrian Army can gain control of even a small strip of a city is remarkable, given the hundreds of thousands of soldiers the government can muster. Yet they have done so.

Then this has come about. The town of Zabadani, 20 miles north of Damascus, has come under the control of the Free Syrian Army. What is astounding about this is that it is so close to the capital, in an area that could have previously been considered under the absolute control of the Syrian government. The next most astounding thing is that the government has launched two attacks to try to take back the town and each one was beaten back, with 30 (and maybe more) government casualties and large numbers of defections from the very army that was sent to defeat the Free Syrian Army.

But the most surprising thing is that the brutal, murderous Syrian government has agreed to a ceasefire. That is, they will have to stop attacking the town because they simply cannot attack it or defeat the Free Syrian Army. The fact that the government cannot control a strip of it’s own territory some 20 miles from the capital shows how far the FSA has come, from a small bunch of lightly-armed and unorganised defectors to a seemingly large army of soldiers mounting a highly effective guerilla warfare campaign.

But the fact that it has forced the government into a compromise is the most astounding (and potentially the most promising factor) the fact that it has managed to persuade the government through resiliance to pull back its forces and agree to a ceasefire shows the power and invaluable nature of the Free Syrian Army. They have accomplished in days what a peaceful protest could not have done in weeks - extract a compromise from the Syrian government regarding the use of force.

Thus, it is clear to all that the Syrian government only respects force. The Free Syrian Army’s excellent resilience has tapped into this and showed them that they will too have to be on the receiving end of force. Thus, if they could repeat this kind of resistance on a wider scale, the Assad family may realise they are finished and a negotiated settlement might become possible, although unlikely.

Even though the ceasefire may not have lasted, the fact that it has forced the government into negotiation (they are even allegedly trying to negotiate to get the rebels to hand their weapons, but unsuccessfully) opens many possibilities. However, don’t hold your breath. Gaddafi announced a ceasefire then sent his troops against Benghazi, and dictators will stop at nothing to stay in power.

Bashar al-Assad is either isolated from reality, deluded, or a liar - or all three

Recently, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad gave a speech to his embattled nation and to the world. In this speech he vowed to strike “terrorists with an iron fist”, again denounced the “external conspiracy” that he thinks (or says) is responsible for the current unrest in Syria, and declared: “We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders from inside the country”. He also proclaimed “When I rule, I rule because that is the people’s will, and when I leave office, I leave because it is the people’s will”  and vowed “victory” in-between the odd cheer from the rubber-stamp parliament members and Baath party loyalists.    

He later delivered another speech the next day, to a largely enthusiastic crowd of thousands. He could have made it into a spectacular event and crowd-surfed, microphone in hand, but instead stood shyly and unsure of his ground, speaking nervously, slowly, and typically devoid of charisma and full of his typical rhetoric. His wife and three children were in the crowd at the front, as a clear sign of solidarity.  

This points to one thing - a feeble leader, totally unenthusiastic about his job (he allegedly never had any political ambitions and tried to refuse the job of president) and isolated from reality, or at least in a state of extreme denial.   
Over the previous weeks, some guilt has maybe been evident, or at least a wish to distance him from the violence. In his previous interview with Barbara Walters in early December last year, he showed these signs when he ironically said: “If you don’t have the support of the people you cannot be in this position”. He went on to claim, when asked about the atrocities the military was blatantly committing against peaceful protesters: “They are not my forces, they are military forces belong to the government.”  

What on earth was he talking about?! He seems to be trying to say that the president and the government are not mutually exclusive. Then it gets better: “I don’t own them. I am president. I don’t own the country, so they are not my forces.”  

Not his forces?! Firstly, the President in Syria is legally head of the army, and therefore commands the functions of the military, orders operations, etc. To distance himself from the military is simply a lie. Saying they are not his forces is also incorrect; the government and the army are very cynically entwined (hence the low number of high-level defections in the ranks of the military) and he (at least in theory) is the supreme commander. In this hierarchical structure, the military is not allowed to deploy anywhere without orders from the highest chain of command. Who could that be?   

 Even hypothesising or speculating that Assad may only be in command of his army in theory (his more openly murderous brother Maher appears to enjoy some influence) and that commanders and members of the government have more influence, his labelling the army as under control of the government also fails to exempt him from the massive and undeniable shadow of responsibility which hangs over him. The President is also the supreme head of the government, hence the rhythmic Ceausescu-esque clapping and slavish eulogies given to him before speeches in the powerless parliament.   
He (effectively) blames the government, he blames “individuals” in the army and security forces who have made “mistakes”, he blames an “external conspiracy” - everyone is to blame but himself, even when all the footage, government structure, bureaucratic procedure and all manner of evidence is against him. This is a clear (relatively unspoken) indication that he knows the disgraceful nature of the oppression and wants to keep a respectable distance from it.  

If you want to look more deeply and look back over his ten years in power, you could be forgiven for regarding all this as one part of one long-running cynical ploy that Assad has been playing over the years. To claim reformist credentials, and yet when the repression kicks in to be able to keep a respectful distance from it all and make himself look like a leader with good intentions but held back by reactionary men in his government.   

It may well be the case; he may be a mere puppet of his family and ministers, hence the incoherent attempts to absolve all responsibility. However it has been reported that the country is run by the Assad family like a personal fiefdom, and the leadership is collective. There seems to be some truth in this. A Damascus resident said: 

"The protests will not go away and the regime is finished," says one Damascus resident who has taken to the streets in protest. "But the family’s gradual detachment from the people and its arrogance means they will be the last to realise it." 

But another statement made seems to give an ominous hint that it may not be like that at all. He ominously declared in the rambling, incoherent speech: “It will end when the Syrian people decide to turn into a submissive people”.This was a small slip-up but a hugely revealing one. For a second he dropped the charade of the conspiracy-theory obsessed president, and directly referred to the Syrian people, telling them that they must be submissive to end the “conspiracy” (A.K.A. the repression).  
He is basically saying: "Stop protesting and I’ll stop shooting". 
So now we see a picture suggesting he may be a liar. Subtle hints, but telling hints. He’s probably lied to himself so much that he now believes it. Dictators in regimes such as these tend to surround themselves with flatterers and sycophants who tell them what they want to hear and eventually isolate them from reality. A 2009 US diplomatic cable said:   
"Bashar’s vanity represents another Achilles heel: the degree to which USG [U.S. government] visitors add to his consequence to some degree affects the prospects for a successful meeting.”   

More convincing evidence comes from his official biographer via the Guardian: 
"[Bashar] changed over time from a well-intentioned man into someone who believed the propaganda and praise of the sycophants surrounding him," said David Lesch, an American academic and Assad’s official biographer.”    
Now we have a somewhat accurate picture. A picture of an insecure, unenthusiastic, isolated and vain man who dislikes his job and is caught in between a rock and a hard place and maybe feeling some regrets. More likely a desperate-instinct of self-preservation, typical of all dictators. His end will be no different.
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