Scale of Syrian protests confirms movement’s momentum

At least 15 people were killed today as tens of thousands of Syrians joined pro-democracy protests in several cities, defying a heavy deployment of security forces.

The scale of the protests suggest that the government’s repressive response has failed to dampen the protest movement, while reports of violent clashes between army units are raising questions about the regime’s much-vaunted cohesion.

Demonstrations erupted in Damascus, Homs, the coastal port of Banias and across eastern Syria. Significantly, the capital witnessed the largest anti-regime protest in its streets since protests began last month.

“There are thousands and thousands of people,” said Razan Zeitouneh, a Damascus-based human rights lawyer. “The whole country is on the streets.”

In Deir al-Zour, several thousand marchers chanted “not scared, not scared,” a reference to the violent crackdown in Deraa which the regime designed as a “shock and awe operation” to deter pro-democracy protesters.

Activists used the Facebook page of Syrian Revolution 2011 to call for mass protests following Friday prayers in solidarity with Deraa’s besieged citizens and to commemorate the killings of over 100 demonstrators last Friday.

The scale of the protests is reassuring activists concerned that the army’s invasion of Deraa might deter people from turning out.

Despite the massacre of civilians by “Syria’s ruling crime family,” the protest movement remains vibrant, says Ammar Abdulhamid, an exiled democracy advocate.

Observers anticipated that today’s turnout would be an important indicator of the protest movement’s resilience and momentum, and whether the regime’s repressive strategy would succeed in intimidating would-be demonstrators.

“Friday will give us an indication of what is winning: Is it fear or is it the desire for change and freedom?” Wissam Tarif of the human rights monitor Insan had said. “There is an element of fear, but everyone is saying, ‘We want to go out because we don’t want to lose this.’”

Some activists anticipate that fissures may occur within the military and the regime’s ruling elite should the protests continue in defiance of the violent repression.

“There are some battalions that refused to open fire on the people,” said Ausama Monajed, a spokesman for the exiled Movement For Justice and Development. “Battalions of the 5th Division were protecting people, and returned fire when they were subjected to attacks by the 4th Division,” led by the president’s brother, Maher.

Some 200 mostly junior members of the ruling Baath Party resigned this week in a protest against the brutal crackdown, but divisions with the military are more significant. The armed forces’ will and capacity to suppress pro-democracy protests has been the single most significant factor separating the upsurges in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya from less hopeful uprisings elsewhere in the region.

“It is the latest sign that cracks — however small — are developing in Assad’s base of support that would have been unimaginable just weeks ago,” reports suggest.

If the reports of military mutiny this early in the uprising are true, “Assad’s military gambit seems to be backfiring,” says Abdulhamid, the Washington-based exile.

The experience of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya demonstrates that repression will not prevent regime collapse or stop people mobilizing, said the National Initiative for Change, a loose coalition of some 400 activists, incorporating domestic and exiled figures. The newly-formed opposition group called on President Bashar as-Assad to initiate a democratic transition or be overthrown.

The initiative is not “an authoritative umbrella group,” observers suggest, but the absence of central coordinated can be considered a strength of the movement.

“The reason it has been successful is because it has been leaderless. If there were prominent groups leading it they would be arrested on day one,” said Christopher Phillips, a Syria analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit:

A group of prominent U.S. senators called on the Obama administration to get behind Syria’s democracy movement and to call for Assad to step down. The European Union is likely to impose sanctions against the regime following a meeting today, although others argue that the region’s states should take the initiative.

The UK, France and Germany are pushing for travel bans and asset freezes against senior Syrian officials.

“Our credibility depends on rapid action,” states a background paper circulated prior to the meeting. But the briefing suggests that a hard-line clique may have assumed responsibility for implementing the crackdown.

“It is unclear to what extent President Assad is in charge and able to take key decisions,” it states.

A prominent exiled democracy advocate called on the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent international commission of inquiry into the Syrian government’s actions.

The commission should “investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law and identify the alleged perpetrators,” said Dr.Radwan Ziadeh, a visiting scholar at George Washington University.

He was disappointed that Cairo’s new government is backing Damascus.

“Egypt has introduced amendments to a proposed UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution, according to which the council should not condemn the bloody governmental crackdown on peaceful protesters in Syria,” said Ziadeh, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

The proposal is being debated at the 47-member UNHRC meeting in Geneva, but Russia and China are maintaining a block on any condemnation of the government’s violence.

Civil society a force in Egypt’s democratization

Egypt’s civil society overcame the Mubarak regime’s stifling restrictions to play a critical role in mobilizing the forces behind the Jasmine revolution. Pro-democracy NGOs are well-poised to take advantage of new political space and opportunities, writes Amira Maaty, but they also face major challenges, including the threat of overfunding and donor-driven agendas that can encumber NGOs lacking capacity and stifle the most innovative and creative groups.

Ugandan NGOs decry government’s violent response to protests

Ugandan civil society groups have condemned the government’s excessive use of force in response to protests against soaring food and fuel prices.

Peaceful “walk to work” demonstrations have taken place every Monday and Thursday since the Activists for Change (A4C) group initiated the marches on April 12th. Opposition FDC party leader Kizza Besigye (right), arrested four times since he came out in support of the protests, was accosted so brutally by security forces that he has sought medical treatment in Nairobi. Fellow opposition leader Norbert Mao (DP) remains in jail until May 2nd for participating in the walks and UPC leader Olara Otunnu has been arrested and released on bail for the same reason.

The protests have reached the far corners of the country, including Gulu in northern Uganda and Rukungiri in the southwest where the government deployed large numbers of security forces to quell unrest. Online video footage shows police and plain clothed security operatives using live ammunition, tear gas, and barricades to break up protests in the capital Kampala. The authorities’ violent reaction to the protests has led to at least five deaths, over 78 hospitalizations, and hundreds of arrests.

The Foundation for Human Rights Intiative (FHRI) issued a statement today condemning the use of force by police and called on the government to respect citizens’ human rights, as enshrined in Articles 20 and 29 of the constitution. Earlier this week, FHRI’s Executive Director Livingstone Ssewanyana publicly reiterated that Ugandans have the legal right to protest following the government’s recent pronouncements that such protests are illegal.

The foundation is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

The U.S. State Department expressed concern about recent violations of freedom of expression and assembly.

The Citizens’ Coalition on Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU), a coalition of civil society organizations spearheaded by FHRI, also issued a statement in collaboration with fellow civil society groups HURINET-U, UWONET and DENIVA, among others, to “protest the way freedoms and rights of Ugandans have been trampled upon and flagrantly violated” during the protests against the price hikes. The group called for an end to “brutal, inhumane methods of law enforcement” and called on the government to address public concerns by way of “foster[ing] a spirit of dialogue and constructive engagement.”

Amnesty International called for similar action in a statement dated April 21.

President Yoweri Museveni assumed office for a third term following February’s flawed elections. Since he came to power in 1986, Uganda has slipped from 4.08 to 3.4 in its rule of law rating and from 4.23 to 3.77 in its respect for civil liberties, according to Freedom House.

Uganda hosts the youngest population on the continent with over 50% of its 35 million inhabitants under the age of 15.

Michael Arnst contributed to this post.

Opposition initiative may ‘fracture’ ruling elite, as ‘cracks emerge’ in Syrian regime

The administration believes the protesters have yet to form a “coalesced movement” strong enough to force the Ba’athists out, but an opposition appeal to the army to lead an Egypt-style transition could help “create a fracture” within the regime, analysts suggest, as cracks emerge in the façade of a unified ruling elite.

The White House issued an Executive Order which provides the administration with what it calls “new tools to target individuals and entities” complicit in human rights abuses.

“Our goal is to end the violence and create an opening for the Syrian people’s legitimate aspirations,” said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. “These are among the U.S. government’s strongest available tools to promote these outcomes, and we are seeking support for similar actions by other governments.”

Obama has been criticized for refusing to call for President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, but the White House is still “not ready” to call on Assad to resign, said an official, because Obama and his advisers “do not want to get out in front of the Syrian people.”

Most analysts insist that the minority Alawite regime is unified and resilient, bound by patrimonial ties and business interests.

“We haven’t seen the kind of splintering between the political leadership and the military that we saw in Tunisia and Egypt,” said Mohammad Bazzi of the Council for Foreign Relations. “Syria is a different case because the military establishment, the leadership of the military and the security forces is largely Alawite … the sect that Assad comes from. And they’re beholden to him and … see their survival as intertwined with Assad’s.”

The regime also has a degree of popular support based on social welfare paternalism and fear of sectarian violence. The Ba’athists have built a base of support on the back of a statist “social market economy” in which large swaths of citizens are government employees or dependent on social services

Yet cracks have emerged in the façade of unity this week, with reports of military desertions, dissension and infighting, and mass resignations from the ruling Ba’ath Party.

The Obama administration appears to be concerned that the opposition lacks the leadership, strategy and critical mass needed to oust the regime.

“There really isn’t a coalesced movement yet or official organizers of the protests,” an administration official said. “It’s almost an organic thing. The more violence happens, the more the cycle continues, the more people hit the street.”

Some observers expect the sanctions to foment divisions within the ruling elite and a network of opposition activists today called on the military to copy Egypt’s armed forces and initiate a democratic transition.

“The best option is for the leadership of the regime to lead a transition to democracy that would safeguard the nation from falling into a period of violence, chaos and civil war,” said a statement signed by 150 politicians and activists inside Syria.

“We’re giving the president a test today and tomorrow, to demonstrate whether he is in control and he has still authority over the people around him,” said Ausama Mounajed, a London-based spokesman for the initiative, which is also being coordinated by U.S.-based exiles Radwan Ziadeh and Najib Ghadbian.

The proposal identifies Defense Minister Ali Habib, a member of the ruling Alawite minority, and army Chief of Staff Gen. Dawud Rajha, as credible transition leaders.

“They’ve chosen an Alawite figure and suggested that he could lead this, which could possibly create a fracture within the regime,” said Dubai-based analyst Riad Kahwaji. “You are making the Alawites take a long look at whether it’s worth it to keep the Assads any longer in power.”

Bashar may be overestimating his regime’s strength, says his father’s biographer.

“You have to put yourself slightly into their shoes,” says veteran Syria analyst Patrick Seale. “They have been on their guard, fighting back, trying to form defensible alliances for the last several decades and facing sanctions, isolation.”

The government’s repressive response to demands for reform has led to more than 450 deaths since the protests began in mid-March, says the country’s National Organization for Human Rights.

The United Nations Human Rights Council today “unequivocally” condemned the crackdown and called on the UN to send a commission of inquiry to investigate “all alleged violations of international human rights law.”

The individuals and entities subject to the new sanctions, listed in an Annex to the Order, are Mahir al-Assad, President Assad’s brother and brigade commander in the 4th Armored Division, which led the repression in Dara’a; Atif Najib, Assad’s cousin, and head of the Political Security Directorate for Dara’a during March 2011, when protesters were killed; Ali Mamluk: director of the General Intelligence Directorate, responsible for repressing dissent and monitoring citizens, and complicit in the violence in Dara’a; and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force through which, the order states, Iran is “providing material support to the Syrian government related to cracking down on unrest.”

The new sanctions appear to indicate a slight but not strategic shift in the administration’s approach to Syria.

Obama has been criticized for refusing to call for President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, but the White House is still “not ready” to call on Assad to resign, said an official, because Obama and his advisers “do not want to get out in front of the Syrian people.”

Critics have accused the administration of prioritizing realpolitik and pursuing a policy of engagement in the vain hope of enticing Damascus away from Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah, its allies in the anti-Western axis of resistance. But the violent crackdown against pro-democracy protesters appears to have killed any expectations of change from within the regime.

“It seems like the effort to pull Assad into the West’s orbit and break him away from Iran, and get him to restart peace negotiations with Israel—it seems like that moment has passed, as soon as he decided to start shooting his citizens,” says The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.

His recent article on the administration’s foreign policy portrayed Obama’s senior officials as consistently divided between pragmatic realists and idealists, a trade-off dismissed as “nonsense” by foreign policy maven Robert Kagan.

“It is not pragmatic to cling to the status quo in a revolutionary era,” he writes, observing that pragmatists’ calculation of U.S. interests proved to be fatally flawed and myopic in defending the Shah of Iran and Hosni Mubarak.

Lizza suggested that Obama’s deliberately pragmatic, non-ideological perspective necessarily entailed a reactive rather than strategic response to events – described by one veteran analyst as a “whack-a-mole” approach.

But other analysts believe a “boutique strategy” or case-by-case approach is appropriate given the differing dynamics and circumstances in each country and the range of U.S. strategic interests across the region.

President Obama should publicly state that while “there is not – nor should there be – a single template for responding to the individual circumstances of each nation experiencing unrest, the US does have significant and specific interests at stake,” argues New York University professor Alon Ben-Meir:

In doing so, Obama needs not forfeit America’s political ideals, but he must advance a strategy to safeguard the US and its allies’ interests while reestablishing America’s moral authority to lead. …..Calls for an Obama Doctrine in the region have become louder, urging clarity behind the United States’ regional strategy and goals. However, it is not that US policy has been misguided; rather, it is that the White House’s messaging has been sluggish and ineffective. While it has demanded that the universal right of peaceful protest be ensured in all places, it must also be clear that America’s actions will be dictated by its strategic interests and priorities and those of its allies in the region.

The administration is wary of policy being driven by the news cycle and appears reluctant to adopt ostensibly principled positions that may be interpreted as binding precedents, constricting policy-makers’ room for maneuver when considerable flexibility, dexterity and creativity will be essential during what is likely to be a long-term process.

“We’re in the early chapters,” says Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, who cites four guidelines shaping the administration’s approach:

First, the Arab revolt is a “historic” event, comparable to the fall of the Ottoman Empire or the post-1945 decolonization of the Middle East; second, “no country is immune” from change; third, the revolution has “deep roots” in poor governance, demographics and new communications technology; and fourth, “these are indigenous events” that can’t be dictated by America, Iran or any other outside power.

A senior Obama adviser, quoted by Lizza, suggested that the administration’s foreign policy doctrine can be characterized as “leading from behind” – a position informed by two assumed axioms:“That the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”

The declinist orthodoxy is neither new nor convincing, according to Georgetown University’s Robert J. Lieber, as “America’s staying power has been regularly and chronically underestimated,” by the pundits.

Economic and political cycles matter less than America’s beneficial structural characteristics:

These advantages include America’s size, wealth, human and material resources, military strength, competitiveness, and liberal political and economic traditions, but also a remarkable flexibility, dynamism, and capacity for reinvention. Neither the rise of important regional powers, nor a globalized world economy, nor “imperial overstretch,” nor domestic weaknesses seem likely to negate these advantages in ways the declinists anticipate, often with a fervor that makes their diagnoses and prescriptions resemble a species of wish fulfillment.

New York University’s Ben-Meir agrees that the White House is mistaken in giving credence to the declinist myth.

“Genuine leadership from the United States can and must be applied if the broader Middle East is to navigate through the Arab awakening to establish a more secure and stable region, which remains central to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he contends.

President Barack Obama has imposed stiff sanctions against senior Syrian officials and leaders of security forces responsible for a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests. But the White House is refusing to call for President Bashir al-Assad to resign because Obama and his advisers “do not want to get out in front of the Syrian people.”

China’s rulers ‘well aware’ of labor’s leverage and political potential

Chinese labor activist Han Dongfang

What explains China’s differing approach to protests by workers and dissidents? Why did the Communist authorities capitulate so readily to striking workers while rights activists are subjected to “the harshest clampdown since the crushing of the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989”?

The U.S. this week China’s ”serious backsliding” on human rights, but labor rights are arguably as robust as ever, as workers reap the benefits of the enhanced bargaining power and leverage that accompanies the coincidence of an economic boom and acute labor shortages.

“For a one-party state that tolerates practically no open defiance of its authority, Beijing’s gentle handling of hundreds of striking truckers in Shanghai who had paralyzed operations at one of China’s largest container ports seems an anomaly,” writes Minxin Pei. The outcome is in stark contrast to the current crackdown on rights activists, lawyers, writers and other forms of dissent.

The regime’s response —whether accommodating or repressive – depends on the protesters’ identity, resources, organizational capacity, economic leverage, and the “social repercussions” of their demands, he contends.

“Generally speaking, highly organized protesters (such as truck drivers, discharged soldiers and officers of the People’s Liberation Army, and taxi drivers) tend to fare better,” Pei writes. “They also possess resources that can be easily and effectively deployed.  Taxi and truck drivers, for example, can use their vehicles to paralyze traffic and produce instantaneous and widespread social and economic disruptions.”

There is a Maoist rationale to the differential treatment of workers and dissidents, notes a Beijing-based analyst, which does not, however, mean that labor activists are immune from persecution.

“In a pattern repeated many times in recent years, authorities wait until most strikers or protesters have gone home or back to work and then quietly round up the ringleaders for punishment,” writes Jamil Anderlini.

The country’s state-run unions also appreciate that workers enjoy leverage of potentially decisive political significance.

Conscious of the role played by independent labor groups in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions is trying to pre-empt the emergence of genuine unions by representing workers’ interests.

The official unions are unlikely to be able or willing to shrug off the responsibility of acting as a mechanism of labor control and transmission belt on behalf of the ruling Communist Party. But some officials at least have realized, in a curious reversal of Brecht’s Stalinist logic, that they have forfeited the confidence of the workers and need to win it back.

The ruling party “is well aware of the threat” of independent labor activism, says Mary Gallagher, a Chinese labor expert at the University of Michigan. The regime understands that organized labor’s economic leverage gives it a potentially decisive power that is alien to NGOs or other civil society groups.

China is, of course, more Market Leninist than Marxist, and the ruling elite has long dumped any romantic or ideological notions of the historic role of the proletariat. But the regime has reportedly commissioned rigorous analyses of the ‘color revolutions’ and similar transitions so it will be well aware that labor unions were leading players in the democratization of South Africa, Indonesia, South Korea and Poland, amongst many other cases.

Independent unions function as “schools for democrats” by providing a mechanism for the negotiation and representation of interests and, under authoritarian regimes, a relatively insulated space in which workers – especially poorer or less-educated activists – can develop confidence, skills and the capacity for collective organization.

Consequently, Beijing’s strategy for managing labor is preemptive and paternalist, with the aim of “helping workers so as not to empower workers” by conferring higher wages and improved conditions to ensure that “they won’t ask for independent unions,” says Gallagher.

Yet the status quo may not be sustainable, says Han Dongfang (above), a labor activist imprisoned after the Tiananmen Square massacre for organizing an independent trade union in Beijing.

Unions may not be able to entirely escape party control, but they should at least be “independent from bosses,” says Han, editor of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.

“China’s workers want and need an alternative,” he recently wrote. “They want a system in which they can raise their demands for higher pay and discuss those demands in peaceful, equal and constructive negotiations with management. If workers can achieve their goals through peaceful collective bargaining, in the long run there will be fewer strikes, workers will be better paid and labor relations will be vastly improved.”

The China Labor Bulletin is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. Han Dongfang is vice-chair of the World Movement for Democracy.