Syrian Ambassador Not Welcome at Royal Wedding; Daraa Under Siege
With the southern Syrian city of Daraa under siege now for several days by government security forces, hundreds have resigned from the country’s ruling Baath party. The Guardian reports that the resignations have occurred in the wake of the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests, which have last almost 500 dead.
Meanwhile, the Guardian also revealed yesterday that the University of St Andrews, where Prince William and Kate Middleton studied, has received more than £100,000 in funding for its center for Syrian studies with the assistance of Syria’s ambassador to the UK, Sami Khiyami. After it emerged that Khiyami was still on the guest list for the royal wedding, the UK’s Foreign Office announced that, in consultation with Buckingham Palace, it had decided that the ambassador’s presence was “unacceptable” and that he should not be present. The connections between the ruling Syrian regime and St. Andrews go deeper:
In addition to Khiyami, who the Foreign Office confirmed last night had been invited to the royal wedding, the centre’s board of advisers also boasts figures closely associated with the Damascus regime, including Fawaz Akhras, the charismatic British-based cardiologist who is not only Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law, but also acts as a gatekeeper for the family, screening British journalists before they are granted an interview with his daughter Asma al-Assad or his son-in-law.
Akhras is also the founder of the British Syrian Society, which has organised visits to Damascus and meetings with Bashar al-Assad for sympathetic members of parliament, as well as organising an investment conference in London to introduce British, European and Arab businesses to Syrian government ministers.
The United National Security Council has not been able to agree to a European and US-backed statement that condemns the government’s use of violence. France, Britain, Germany and Portugal had proposed the draft, but Russia, Lebanon, India and several other members of the 15-member security council have opposed it.
Syria’s opposition movement — which has heretofore been operated by a dispersed group of young activists, many acting mostly online and even from outside of Syria — is starting to take shape. Says the New York Times:
On Wednesday, six weeks after the antigovernment protests began, a group of opposition figures announced what they called a united front, calling on the Syrian Army to side with the protesters and protect them from the feared state security apparatus.
Underscoring the challenges facing it in a police state, the group insisted on keeping the names of its members in Syria anonymous to protect them — all but two in Dara’a, who were assumed to be already exposed. It did provide the names of about a dozen activists in Syria to The New York Times.
The group, called the National Initiative for Change, said that its 150 members in Syria represented a broad spectrum of groups opposing the leadership of Syria’s authoritarian president, Bashar al-Assad, as well as most of Syria’s diverse ethnic and religious communities. Since journalists have been denied visas to Syria, it is impossible to independently verify the breadth of the coalition’s popular support.
Since 1982, when 10,000 people were killed by the army during an uprising in the city of Homs, opposition to President Bashar al-Assad has been virtually non-existent. The catalyst for the protests in Syria occurred on March 18, when a group of high school students was arrested after writing anti-regime graffiti on a wall in Daraa.
Under siege by tanks and soldiers now for a few days, the situation in Daraa is growing increasingly desperate, says the Guardian. People report that they do not have water, bread, phones or electricity. Some reports have emerged of at least five army officers siding with demonstrators and of soldiers “quietly refusing orders to detain people at checkpoints.”
About 10% of Syria’s 22 million population are thought to belong to the Baath party, whose traditional power base has been among the rural and poorer sectors of society — the very people to whom most of the protesters belong. Both anti- and pro- government supporters are expected to turn out in large numbers for demonstrations on Friday.
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Photo of protests in Douma/Damascus by syriana2011 (Flickr: Syria Damascus Douma Protests 2011 - 22) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons