French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called on Syrian authorities to divulge “the whole truth” surrounding the death of France 2 TV reporter Gilles Jacquier who was killed by an apparent grenade attack as he covered a pro-Assad rally in the flashpoint city of Homs. Jacqueir’s death comes at a time when the Arab League observer mission appears to be collapsing, unable to stop the violence and protect protesters from the brutal crackdown that is now in its 10th month.
The reporter’s killing also raises the question of how to discover the “truth” of what is happening in Syria as both pro- and anti-government spokesmen give differing accounts of how the attack happened and who was responsible.
Also, the League’s carefully constructed anti-Syrian coalition appears to be on the ropes as several League members are now openly questioning the efficacy of sending unarmed observers into Syria to literally be led around by the nose by government minders. Opposition members and street activists have been bitterly disappointed by the behavior of the observers who seem paralyzed in the face of the violence. Several of the 165-member observer force have privately expressed their frustration and have talked of quitting in protest. They cite the handling of the mission by the League and the air-tight control Assad’s handlers have exercised over their movements, as well as who they can interview.
And in one of the most cynical speeches of his career, Bashar Assad addressed a multitude of regime supporters in Damascus and on Syrian TV saying, “Thanks to you, I have never felt weak, not even for a day. We will undoubtedly triumph over this conspiracy.” The speech indicated Assad’s increasing confidence that he can weather the storm of opposition to his rule and his belief that the international community will remain on the sidelines while he carries out his crackdown on protestors. Indeed, as “Amal Hanano” (the pseudonym of a Syrian-American writer) writing in Foreign Policy observes, “Syrians are on their own.”
It has been impossible to confirm the details of how Jacquier died. The state-run news agency announced that the journalist was killed covering a pro-Assad demonstration as he was documenting “the damages left by terrorists…with photos and interviewing citizens who were victims of terror in the city when [an] armed terrorist member fired mortar projectiles on the delegation.” This is in keeping with the government’s narrative that armed gangs and terrorists are responsible for the violence and are trying to overthrow the regime.
But the Syrian Revolution General Commission, an opposition force, disputed that account, claiming, “The journalists were attacked in a heavily militarized regime stronghold – it would be hugely difficult for any armed opposition to penetrate the area and launch such a deadly attack.” It says that the mortars were fired from an “infantry vehicle.”
But today, AP is reporting that a “barrage of grenades” were responsible for Jacquier’s death. The reporter was with a group of 15 other foreign journalists who had received permission to cover the rally. Only a limited number of outside reporters have been allowed into the country and each is assigned a handler to make sure they cover what the Syrian government wants them to see.
Herein lies the great dilemma of gleaning the truth of what is actually happening in Syria. With no independent news sources to weigh accounts and come to a reasonable conclusion regarding events on the ground, it is proving impossible to discover the “facts” as one would normally do regarding any other story. Both the government and major opposition groups have their own agendas, their own perspectives on events, and trying to sift through contradictory accounts and be reasonably sure that one has a handle on the story has become an exercise in futility.
If the truth is the first casualty of war, the second has to be clarity.
No such uncertainty clouds the view of the international community and opposition forces inside Syria when it comes to an assessment of the effectiveness of the Arab League observer mission that has been in country since December 26 of last year. There has been universal condemnation of the League’s timidity, and its failure to stand up to the Syrian government and demand the kind of access that would give an accurate picture of what was happening.
This account from an activist in Deraa about the first days of the observer mission in that city is telling. Following an initial burst of optimism from the opposition, it soon became clear that the Arab League observers would do nothing – could do nothing – to halt the violence:
On the first day the team met with the mayor, so we couldn’t do anything. The second day, we invited them to a protest at a martyr’s funeral. They said, “We don’t have cars for transportation.” We asked, “How could the team of observers not have cars?” So we postponed the protest. The third day, we asked them to come and observe the protest, but the regime took them somewhere else. Their work is not even at 1 percent. Nothing is happening. They aren’t gathering testimonies from the families. They are witnessing the snipers and the army on the streets. They see this with their own eyes. A stranger walking in the streets would know.
One Algerian monitor has already quit in disgust, saying, “I resigned from the monitoring mission when it reached a dead end and I became certain that I was serving the Syrian regime, [which] was exploiting us for propaganda,” he said. The head of the observer mission, General Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, who has close ties to accused war criminal President Omar al-Bashir, says that the monitor never left his hotel room and fell ill. He accused the Algerian of seeking media attention.
But another monitor, speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the Algerian’s account that other members of the observer team were also thinking seriously of resigning in protest. “The mission does not serve the citizens,” he said. “It doesn’t serve anything.” Another monitor told Reuters, ”Those who want to leave are leaving on a personal level, not due to the will of the state. There are some people who are concerned about their safety … Some, from a professional perspective, feel they are not achieving anything… The delegation needs expertise… It needs will and good intentions from the authorities.”
Meanwhile, the carefully constructed anti-Syrian coalition of Arab states within the League who originally backed the tough sanctions imposed on Assad’s regime and also supported Syria’s expulsion appears to be coming apart over the failure of the observer mission. One Arab League official said, “This is not a problem with the Arab League. This is a problem with the international system. Who is willing to send in troops? Who is willing to send in a fighting force?”
A few Arab League members have called for a “rapid reaction force” to respond to Assad’s brutality, but that idea is going nowhere – not with Iraq and Lebanon unalterably opposed. Other states like Algeria are looking nervously at Syria and wondering if they would be next. The fact is, most Arab governments are made up of authoritarian regimes or dictatorships almost as bad as Syria. They worry about setting precedents that could someday be used against them. Also, some of the Gulf states are fearful of Syria’s close ally, Iran, and what it may do if collective action results in a threat to Assad’s continuation in power.
All of this confusion and weakness has not slaked the ambition of the opposition to topple Assad peacefully. On Friday, December 30, more than 250,000 protestors took to the streets in Idlib and Hama with many thousands more participating in demonstrations across the country. In response, Assad appears to have added some wrinkles to his tactics in trying to crush the rebellion.“The regime added tear gas, water cannons, and nail bombs to its arsenal of mass arrests, torture, live ammunition, and sniper fire used to attack protesters,” reports FP’s Hanano.
The protestors may be on their own. They may have been abandoned by the Arab League and its timidity in the face of unprecedented violence carried out against civilians. They may be resigned to a long, bloody, and difficult campaign to wrest control of the country from Assad.
But in the end, they see their struggle as a fight for human dignity. FP’s Hanano:
As part of the “Strike for Dignity,” protesters in Homs held a “noise campaign” by banging pots in protest. Tanjara is Arabic for pot, but when transformed to a verb, it means to disregard. Disregard the regime, the Arab League observers, and the world, because the people on the street know they are running this revolution alone – with chants, flags, cell-phone cameras, and now kitchen utensils.
And, no doubt, with the spilling of more of their own blood to achieve their goals.
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