By Rebecca Witonsky
In the past week, many new signs of the Syrian regime weakening its hold on the people have emerged. First of all, last Friday, July 1, 2011, Syria experienced the largest demonstrations so far to date since the beginning of the freedom uprising in March. The crowd estimates in Hama range from 300,000 from AP to 400,000 from the Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. In addition, Mr. Abdulhamid estimated that last Friday’s protests included 100,000 people in Homs and 60,000 in Deir Ezzour. Thus, the three largest protests in Hama, Homs, and Deir Ezzour included 460,000 to 560,000 people.
Second, following the massive protests in Hama on Friday, the governor of Hama, Ahmed Abdul-Aziz, was fired. According to the Beirut-based Syrian activist Omar Idibi, Mr. Abdul-Aziz was reportedly fired because he refused to order the Syrian army to slaughter the protestors in Hama. Thus, his firing indicates that cracks are beginning to emerge at the highest levels of the Assad regime, and the fact that a high-ranking Syrian official is refusing to murder protestors is surely highly significant.
Third, the protestors are showing increased capacity to join together across ethnic and religious fault lines. For instance, Alawites and Sunnis marched together in Hama last Friday, and also thousands of Alawites, Ismailites, and Sunnis joined together in a protest last Friday in the Al-Salamiya area of Hama. Also, in the largely Kurdish area of Al Qamishly, Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, and Assyrians protested together against Assad last Friday. The Assad regime is trying to remain in power by exploiting ethnic and religious differenes and sowing fear among Alawites that a peaceful regime change will lead to a bloodbath against them. Thankfully, the protestors are gradually overcoming these ethnic and religious differences and thus undermining the regime.
The head of IDF intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, said the regime would remain in power as long as the protests do not reach Aleppo and Damascus. But in recent weeks the protests have actually begun to reach Aleppo, and in recent days the protests are now starting to spread to Damascus. According to the Syrian Local Coordination Committees, on Tuesday, July 5, 2011, demonstrations of unknown size occurred in several parts of Aleppo. On July 5, 2011, 200 young men and women marched in Baghdad Street in the heart of Damascus demanding immediate regime change. This incident seems to mark the first example of a demonstration calling for regime change in Damascus itself. Hopefully the protests will spread to other areas of Damascus and Aleppo soon so that the regime can fall at last and the Syrian people can start reclaiming control over their own destiny.
Maj.-Gen. Kochavi also dismissed reports about large-scale defections from the Syrian army. Kochavi believes that only 20-30 officers and a few hundred soldiers have defected from Syrian army. But Syrian human rights activist Wissam Tarif estimates that some 2,000 soldiers have left the Syrian army. In addition, a conscript who became a sniper has left the army, and he said that he fled the army along with a group of 20 other soldiers who left together. The fact that soldiers are leaving the army together in groups in an organized fashion suggests that the levels of defection are increasing in the Syrian army. The ability of soldiers to flee the army together in groups is another sign of the weakening of the Assad regime.
In addition, increasing numbers of officers appear to be deserting the army. According to The Syrian Interpreter YouTube site, at least three first lieutenants, a captain, and a Syrian air force intelligence officer and low-level intelligence officer in Aleppo have left the military in the last week alone. At least two First Lieutenants, Abdalla Odeh of Daraa and Amjad al Hameed of Rastan, come from largely Sunni areas. Captain Ayham Yihia Kurdi thanked Turkey and Kuwait for their support of the Syrian protestors and contrasted the positive stance of Turkey and Kuwait with the pro-regime stance of other Arab states. Captain Kurdi also called upon soldiers’ families to help their sons defect from the army.
The two intelligence officers from Aleppo gave particularly moving testimony of their reasons for leaving. Air Force intelligence officer Abdul Hamid al Abii stated that he defected to protest the murder of five protestors who were slaughtered inside the intelligence branch in Seif al Dewle area of Aleppo. The fact that the victims included three Kurds and two Arabs suggests that the regime may be targeting more Kurds for repression than Arabs. The regime buried these men in mass graves rather than returning their bodies to their family for a public funeral and burial. The regime obviously wanted to prevent more public funerals of protestors which can keep the uprising alive.
Abii also named his superiors as perpetrators of atrocities against the Syrian people. He states that he was ordered by brigadier general Adeeb Salama, head of air force intelligence in Aleppo, to follow and report on demonstrators in Kefrenbe city. He also says that he was ordered to kill seven individuals by brigadier general Salih Bisebees and colonel Zuheri Bitar. He names not only the perpetrators but also the victims as well. Abii’s detailed testimony will be very helpful to Syrian opposition groups in exile which are looking to file charges against the Syrian regime for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court and possibly other legal venues.
Local Coordination Committee of Syria. Report of July 5, 2011.
First Lieutenant Abdalla Odeh Defects - June 26, 2011
Air Force Intelligence Officer Abdul Hamid al Abii Defects - June 28, 2011
First Lieutenant Bessem al Khalid Defects - June 28, 2011?
Staff Warrant Officer Mustafa Yihia al As’ad Defects (military intelligence in Aleppo) - June 28, 2011
First Lieutenant Amjad al Hameed Defects, Homs, Rastan - June 29, 2011
Captain Ayham Yihia Kurdi Defects, July 2, 2011