Robert Fisk: The people vs the president

Syria in turmoil as resistance turns to insurrection

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
Share
Related Topics

Syria's revolt against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad is turning into an armed insurrection, with previously peaceful demonstrators taking up arms to fight their own army and the "shabiha" – meaning "the ghosts", in English – of Alawi militiamen who have been killing and torturing those resisting the regime's rule.

Even more serious for Assad's still-powerful supporters, there is growing evidence that individual Syrian soldiers are revolting against his forces. The whole edifice of Assad's Alawi dictatorship is now in the gravest of danger.

In 1980, Assad's father, Hafez, faced an armed uprising in the central city of Hama, which was put down by the Special Forces of Hafez's brother Rifaat – who is currently living, for the benefit of war crimes investigators, in central London – at a cost of up to 20,000 lives. But the armed revolt today is now spreading across all of Syria, a far-mightier crisis and one infinitely more difficult to suppress. No wonder Syrian state television has been showing the funerals of up to 120 members of the security services from just one location, the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour.

The first evidence of civilians turning to weapons to defend their families came from Deraa, the city where the bloody story of the Syrian uprising first began after intelligence officers arrested and tortured to death a 13-year-old boy. Syrians arriving in Beirut told me the male citizens of Deraa had grown tired of following the example of peaceful Tunisian and Egyptian protesters – an understandable emotion since people in those countries suffered nothing like the brutal suppression meted out by Assad's soldiers and militiamen – and were now sometimes "shooting back" for the sake of "dignity" and to protect their wives and children.

Bashar and his cynical brother Maher – the present-day equivalent of the outrageous Rifaat – may now be gambling on the old dictator's saw that their regime must be defended against armed Islamists supported by al-Qa'ida, a lie which was perpetrated by Muammar Gaddafi and the now-exiled leaders Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the still-on-the-throne al-Khalifas of Bahrain.

The few al-Qa'ida cells in the Arab world may wish this to be true, but the Arab revolt is about the one phenomenon in the Middle East uncontaminated by "Islamism". Only the Israelis and the Americans may be tempted to believe otherwise.

Al Jazeera television yesterday aired extraordinary footage of a junior Syrian officer calling upon his comrades to refuse to continue massacring civilians in Syria. Identified as Lt Abdul-Razak Tlas, from the town of Rastan, he said he had joined the army "to fight the Israeli enemy", but found himself witnessing a massacre of his own people in the town of Sanamein. "After what we've seen from crimes in Deraa and all over Syria, I am unable to continue with the Syrian Arab army," he announced. "I urge the army, and I say: 'Is the army here to steal and protect the Assad family?' I call upon all honourable officers to tell their soldiers about the real picture, use your conscience... if you are not honourable, stay with Assad."

Differentiating rumour from fact in Syria is getting easier by the week. More Syrians are reaching the safety of Lebanon and Turkey to tell their individual stories of torture and cruelty in security police barracks and in plain-clothes police cells. Some are still using the telephone from Syria itself – one to describe explosions in Jisr al-Shughour and of bodies being tossed into the river from which the town takes its name.

For well over a month, I have been watching Syrian television's nightly news and at least half the broadcasts have included funerals of dead soldiers. Now Syria itself declares that 120 have been killed in one incident, an incredible loss for an army that was supposed to instill horror into the minds of the country's protesters. But then the supposedly invincible Syrian army often showed itself woefully unable to suppress Lebanese militias during the country's 1975-90 civil war. An entire battalion of Syrian Special Forces troops was driven out of east Beirut, for example, by a ragtag group of Christian militias who would have been crushed by any serious professional army.

If you wish to destroy unarmed civilians, you shoot them down in the street and then shoot down the funeral mourners and then shoot down the mourners of the dead mourners – which is exactly what Assad's gunmen have been doing – but when the resistors shoot back, the Syrian army has shown a quite different response: torture for their prisoners and fear in the face of the enemy.

But if the armed insurrection takes hold, then it is also the 11 per cent Alawi community – once the frontier force of the French mandate against the Sunnis and now the prop of Assad against the poorer Sunnis – which is at threat. So appalled is the Assad regime at its enemies that it has been encouraging Palestinians to try to cross the frontier wire on Israeli-occupied Golan. The Israelis say this is to divert world attention from the massacres in Syria – and they are absolutely right.

The Damascus government's Tishrin newspaper has been suggesting that 600,000 Palestinians may soon try to "go home" to the lands of Palestine from which the Israelis drove them in 1948, a nightmare the Israelis would prefer not to think about – but not as great a nightmare as that now facing the people and their oppressors in Syria itself.



React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power