By Dan Katz
A series of reports have come through Syrian opposition groups suggesting that the regime has massacred scores of soldiers attempting to defect and flee to neighbouring Turkey.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, told the BBC on 21 December that at least 111 had been killed in an "”organised massacre” in Idlib province in north west Syria. Defectors were machine gunned. Survivors were then hunted down and killed, together with civilians who were sheltering them.
One Lebanese-based activist from the campaign Avaaz suggests that up to 3000 defectors are in the Jabal al-Zawiya area of Idlib. Figures circulating in Syria claim that there are now 10 000 defectors in hiding inside the country.
These killings take place as the first 30 Arab observers arrived in Syria – the first complement of up to 150 officials sent for a month as part of an Arab League attempt to calm the situation inside the country. The Arab League has imposed sanctions and demands the release of political prisoners, withdrawal of armed forces from urban centres and a dialogue between the state and the protesters.
Over 5000 have been killed since the rebellion began in March, and 14,000 are in detention.
Syria says it will “protect” the Arab observers which it has very reluctantly accepted in order to fend off harsher demands.
Economy in crisis
Syria’s GDP has shrunk by almost 30% in dollar terms since the start of the year — from $55 billion to $37 billion dollars. Heating oil is no longer easily available. Cooking oil is scarce, as is baby milk, and electricity in many cities is cut for hours on end.
The Syrian Minister of Labour and Social Affair said last week that unemployment in the country stood at “between 22 and 30%” - a rate more than twice previous official levels.
Prime Minister Adel Safar has issued an order for the public sector to reduce spending by 25%. Public sector job cuts will cut into the state’s own support base.
Lebanon’s Daily Star (20 December) states that foreign currency earnings from oil and tourism have ended; foreign currency reserves have dropped by $5 billion from $18 billion in March.
President Bashar Assad has signed into effect a law imposing the death penalty on anyone arming “terrorists,” as increasing numbers of clashes take place with rebel troops, often organised by the Turkey-based Free Syrian Army.
The FSA’s leader, Colonel Riad Asaad, claims 15 000 fighters under his command.
The FSA met the biggest opposition political front, the Syrian National Council (SNC), in Turkey recently. The SNC wants to reign in the FSA and put it firmly under its own control.
Although the SNC is fronted by secular activists and includes Kurds, it also contains the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is using the platform to revive itself after decades of harsh repression. The Islamists in the SNC are sponsored by the Islamist Turkish government.
The SNC met in Tunis on 17-18 December. Their concluding statement declares the SNC wants “the establishment of a new Syria as a democratic, pluralistic, civil state, where all citizens – men and women – are treated equally under the rule of law.” It says the Kurdish national question will be settled “[w]ithin the framework of unity in Syria.”
Although the SNC “pledged to support the Free Syrian Army”, the FSA was not represented at the conference. One participant explained their absence: “The FSA is an empty cardboard box. It means nothing. And besides, if we want to try and win over the army, why would we bring the FSA here?”