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When Random Killing is a Feature, Not a Bug

Wall of Fear Rebuilt in Syria

by PETER LEE

In the summer of 2011, foreign reportage and commentary on the Syrian uprising noted that the “wall of fear”—popular unwillingness to speak out against the government out of fear of reprisal by the government’s brutal security services—had crumbled, thanks to the sense of safety and empowerment (and, most likely, anonymity) provided by burgeoning mass demonstrations.

From July 2011:

Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says people are beginning to lose their fear of the regime.

“The president appears to be hesitating, torn between a bloody crackdown and hoping the protests will run themselves out and he can stay in power,” he said.

“People can smell his fear and are making calculations that the likelihood of getting killed amongst tens of thousands of protesters is far smaller. Bashar does not want to be his father[the former president Hafez al-Assad], and your average young Syrian man will be emboldened if he thinks he might just get thrown in jail for a few days. The numbers game has changed.”

Fear has made a comeback.   There’s a reason for that.

The Syrian government has conducted an extensive program of state terror in an attempt to regain the political initiative in Syria’s restive areas.

Amnesty International recently issued a report titled “Deadly Reprisals,” describing atrocities committed by the Syrian army during its pacification activities.  It is based on in-country reporting and contains moving first-hand testimony such as this example, from a town called Sarmin:

According to their family and local activists, the brothers, all construction workers, were not fighters but were active in demonstrations. Their mother told Amnesty International:

“The army came on Thursday [22 March] and so all the youths were trapped in the town. My boys were at home. On Friday [23 March] early morning, at about 6-6.30am, soldiers came and banged on the door. We were all asleep and Bilal went to open the door. They said they want to search; they asked about the small motorcycle in the courtyard and Bilal said it was his. He gave his ID and one soldier took it and put it in his shirt pocket without even looking at it. Yousef came out of the room into the courtyard and Talal also came out of his room, still wiping his eyes from the sleep. He gave his ID and a soldier also put it in his shirt pocket without looking at it.

“They took Bilal and the motorbike outside to the street. There was a group of them searching everywhere and many others outside in the street. I could not see those outside but could hear many voices. The soldiers did not find anything in the house. They only grabbed a pair of military type trousers and said my sons are with the FSA [the opposition Free Syrian Army] but I told them everyone is wearing those trousers and they are being sold at the market. They did not take anything else.

“They dragged Yousef and Talal out to the street. I tried to go after them but a soldier pushed his rifle against me and told me to go back. Every time I tried to go outside they stopped me. About an hour later, after the soldiers had moved from the street, my relatives and neighbors called asking for water to put out a fire. We filled buckets of water and I ran out barefoot and my daughter who had run out ahead of me screamed ‘my brothers are burning’.

“Yousef and Bilal were burning on the ground with several motorbikes piled over them. Yousef was shot in the side of the head and Bilal in the forehead, and Talal was lying face down, shot in head and in the back and burning from the waist down. Their hands were folded back, from how they had been tied. They were about 20 metres from the door of our home but we had to run back into the house because of heavy shooting and we could not recover the bodies until about 7pm in the evening.”

And:

“At about 2pm soldiers broke down the door and burst into the house. There were at least 10 of them. The men of my family were hiding because it was believed that the army was taking and/or killing any young men they found. They grabbed my son Uday and asked for his ID. I told them that he does not yet have an ID because he is just 15.

“They left and went next door and found my brother Mohamed Sa’ad. He had shrapnel injuries in the arms and legs which he had sustained in the morning of 24 March, when he was in the market and the army came into town and many residents were injured by shooting and shelling. He was not involved with the resistance; he did not even go to demonstrations and was not wanted; he had no problem passing the army checkpoints on his way to and from Aleppo University and home. The soldiers brought him back to the house and we told them he was not involved in anything; I told them to check and if they found that he had done anything I would hand him over myself. We showed them his university card and they tore it up without even looking at it…

“I was trying to protect Uday behind my back and they pointed their rifles at me. I tried to reason with them and we begged them and kissed their feet but they took both Uday and Mohamed Sa’ad away.

“I tried to follow them outside and was screaming at them and they got angry and grabbed my other child, who is 10 years old and handicapped [learning disabled and mute], and threatenedto kill him. As they left they set fire to the house. With my relatives we eventually managed to put out the fire, but by then my parents’ home was mostly burned down. We could not go out for fear of being shot. Only in the evening, after the army left the area I went out with some relatives and found the bodies in the street, around the corner, less than 100 metres from the house. There were nine bodies. Uday had been shot in the head and Mohamed Sa’ad had his hands tied behind his back and had been shot in the chest.”

The report describes numerous incidents of extra-judicial killings, and includes dozens of photos of the victims: identity cards, candid photos, formal portraits, smartphone snaps of boys and young and youngish men regarding the lens with a mixture of expressions of happiness, suspicion, or blankness, but all lacking a hint of the horrors that would soon overtake them.

People who question the veracity and motives of anti-Assad reporting may be inclined to offer the usual caveats concerning anti-regime propaganda orchestrated by the Syrian opposition’s indefatigable and ethically untrammeled media operation.

However, the Amnesty report looks like the real deal, and not just because of the wrenching verbal and pictorial testimony.

It’s because the report provides a complementary and explanatory picture to what’s going on in the government’s counterattack against the insurgency.

Readers have noted that the report describes extensive atrocities by the Syrian army, not the mukhabarat (security services) or the shabiha (pro-government irregulars).

Judging from incidents of the type reproduced above, the violence is not a carefully-planned death squad operation against selected targets.  Instead, the violence is, beyond the fact that it is directed almost exclusively at young men of military age, arbitrary to the point of randomness.

Like the seemingly random shelling of Syrian towns prior to military assaults.

It is difficult to see what military or political objective, at least according to the “hearts and minds” theory of weaning the undecided away from the insurgency by ostentatious solicitude for the innocent–is served by lobbing a few shells into a village or massacring some young men who might have been insurgents—but also peaceful demonstrators, disgruntled wannabes, or innocent bystanders or even regime supporters.

Unless “randomness” is regarded as a feature, not a bug.

The picture I get from the Amnesty report is of a counterinsurgency strategy that wishes to return the Syrian population to its pre-2011 state of fear through frequent exercises of state violence that make little serious attempt to discriminate between (in its terms) the deserving, the undeserving, and the terminally wronged.

In my view, the soldiers are encouraged to teach the villagers “a lesson” and, it appears that, after months of grinding insurgency and losses suffered at the hands of the FSA, some of them are happy to do so.  The awareness that, in the current environment, state murder is arbitrary, capricious, and largely devoid of any logical political or legal underpinnings, cows the population and discourages them from any posture except absolute passivity.

That’s why the massacres at Houla and Qubeir don’t look like part of a coordinated government death squad/ethnic cleansing strategy.  In general, the Syrian government wants to re-assert its control over the entire Syrian polity, not polarize it and split it into sectarian cantons.

The government campaign, at least in this limited regard, seems to be having an effect.

Dissidents and the Western media have both apparently forgotten the optimistic days of summer 2011, when government gestures toward reconciliation were brushed aside by the opposition’s political leadership acting on the theory that soon the movement would sweep into Aleppo and Damascus and render compromise unnecessary—and the government’s response was largely restricted to mass detentions and brutalization of detainees.

Now, instead, one hears rumblings that the West’s refusal to intervene represents a betrayal by the West—even though foreign intervention was apparently never popular with broad swaths of the opposition until a dubious insurrection strategy was layered on top of a failed mass political movement.

In addition to the intimidation factor of callous soldiers acting as judge, jury, and executioner, the government wants to make it clear that its continued resolve to keep a step ahead of the insurgency in its determination and ability to escalate the confrontation beyond the opposition’s ability to endure.

It is apparent from the character of reportage in Russian and Chinese outlets that a decision has been made—with Western media outlets actively hostile to the Syrian version of events and the Syrian government’s own outlets devoid of credibility—to get the Assad regime’s story out through outlets like Russia’s RT Novosti and China’s Xinhua News Agency.

During the early months of the Syrian uprising, locally sourced Xinhua reporting was virtually non-existent.  I have a distant memory of something about a cosmetics and personal care convention in Damascus, meant to demonstrate the pervasive normalcy of life despite the demonstrations, but little else.  Then Xinhua, as the crisis deepened and the Chinese government decided to insert itself by actively supporting a political solution, started posting a lot of foreign agency reports.

Now, Xinhua’s Damascus bureau is weighing in with in-depth reporting from the Syrian government side of the fence on a daily basis, describing the Syrian government strategy while trying to maintain a certain credibility-enhancing distance from the official story and Russia’s full-throated support—but also supporting the political counter narrative to Western accusations that Russian and Chinese support of the regime is prolonging the crisis.  Here are some examples:

“DAMASCUS, June 13 (Xinhua) – At a time when the international community is still unable to reach a consensus to bring about a favorable solution to the stand-off in Syria, the Syrian government seems to have shelved all outside suggestions and chosen its own way: a military showdown to bring an end to the intractable crisis once and for all.

Since the very beginning of the 16-month-old crisis, the Syrian government has repeatedly made it clear that had it desired it would have settled the situation in a short time and got done once and for all with the anti-regime movement, which started in the form of peaceful protests but evolved later into a bloody armed insurgency.

The Syrian government argued that it kept down military options out of concerns for the lives of civilians as the alleged gunmen are reportedly hiding among civilians in residential areas of restive cities across the country, as well as in a bid to give a chance for a political settlement.

However, the escalation of violent acts and attempts by the so- called rebel Free Syrian Army to take battles to President Bashar al-Assad’s main stronghold, the capital Damascus, have represented a milestone in the Syrian crisis.

The showdown was kicked off on Friday, when the fiercest battles erupted between the Syrian army and the rebels in some of the capital’s streets and its surroundings. The Syrian army allegedly battled the Free Syrian Army’s fighters who had tried to launch simultaneous attacks against several army checkpoints in Damascus.

The next day, local media said the Syrian army “shook the ground underneath the gunmen’s feet” and reported the killings of tens of the rebels, asserting that Damascus is immune to the attacks of gunmen.

The military showdown extended later to the restive northern parts of the country amid daily official confirmations that those areas have been cleansed from “terrorists” one after another and the army has regained control of the areas from the hands of rebels.

In the latest “cleansing operation”, Syrian troops have succeeded in repelling armed rebels from the mountainous town of Haffeh near the coastal city of Latakia after a week of intense fighting, state-run SANA news agency reported Wednesday.”

And

“DAMASCUS, June 14 (Xinhua) – The UN supervision mission’s spokesperson said Thursday that groups of UN observers had entered Syria’s troublesome northern mountainous town of al-Haffeh earlier in the day, after having troubles entering the town over the past week.

On Wednesday, Syrian troops succeeded in dislodging the armed groups from Haffeh near the coastal city of Latakia after a week of intense fighting, the country’s state-run SANA news agency reported.

Syrian authorities have restored peace and tranquility to al- Haffeh, said SANA, adding that the armed groups had carried out acts of arson and sabotage to public and private properties as well as terrorizing local residents there.

“The town appeared deserted and most government institutions, including the post office, were set on fire.” spokesman Ghosheh said.

In a brief statement to Xinhua, Ghosheh said “Archives were burnt, stores were looted and set on fire, residential homes appeared rummaged and the doors were forced open.”

“The Baath Party Headquarters in the town was heavily shelled,” she said, adding that “remnant of heavy weapons and a range of caliber arms were found in the town. Cars both of civilian and security use were also set on fire and damaged.”

And:

“DAMASCUS, June 15 (Xinhua) – A foreseeable political settlement to Syria’s nearly 16-month-old crisis sounds easier said than done for the time being…

Hasan Abdul-Azim, a leading opposition figure at home, recently blamed some Arab and Western countries for lack of seriousness to push for the implementation of the six-point peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League joint envoy to Syria Kofi Annan.

The head of the National Coordination Body said in an interview with Xinhua that there is no full will from some Arab and Western countries to resolve the 16-month-old deadly crisis. He noted that the majority of Arab countries support the peace plan except Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which, according to him, apparently have an interest in the ongoing violence.

Abdul-Azim said the United States and Britain could have practiced more pressures on Saudi Arabia and Qatar to halt their alleged support for the armed groups in Syria.

Experts believe that had the international community truly desired to end the Syrian crisis, it would have been over in its first months. They contend that with each party supporting its allies inside the country, the Syrian citizens are the one paying the price.”

Looking at what outsiders can see of “facts on the ground”, the strengthening of the Russian-Chinese pro-Syria axis with Putin’s reassumption of the Russian presidency, and the West’s current refusal to play the military intervention card, it looks like unapologetic escalation of violence will remain a key element in the Syrian government toolkit.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org