Still from the video below, allegedly from the early days of the Syrian uprising and showing unarmed riot police being shot at, and hit, from gunfire from the protesters’ side.
[…] A Violent Start
The city of Dara’a, near the Jordanian border, was the epicenter of protests that triggered Syria’s civil war in 2011. Anti-government sentiment had been growing due to a recent influx of angry and desperate families dispossessed by what one expert called “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.”
In early March 2011, police in the city arrested and severely beat several high school students for painting anti-government graffiti on a wall. No doubt inspired by the Arab Spring, protesters gathered at a local mosque and began to march for political rights and an end to corruption, chanting “God, Syria, Freedom.” Syrian police reportedly responded with water cannons, batons and even gunfire to disperse the marchers, killing three protesters. The government news agency claimed that “infiltrators” among the marchers had smashed cars, destroyed other property and attacked police, causing “chaos and riots.”
Matters went from bad to worse when demonstrators fought back. As one Israeli journalist reported, “In an uncharacteristic gesture intended to ease tensions the government offered to release the detained students, but seven police officers were killed, and the Baath Party Headquarters and courthouse were torched, in renewed violence.” Around the beginning of April, according to another account, gunmen set a sophisticated ambush, killing perhaps two dozen government troops headed for Dara’a.
President Assad tried to calm the situation by sending senior government officials with family roots in the city to emphasize his personal commitment to prosecute those responsible for shooting protesters. He fired the provincial governor and a general in the political security force for their role. The government also released the children whose arrest had triggered the protests in the first place.
Assad also announced several national reforms. As summarized by the UN’s independent commission of inquiry on Syria, “These steps included the formation of a new Government, the lifting of the state of emergency, the abolition of the Supreme State Security Court, the granting of general amnesties and new regulations on the right of citizens to participate in peaceful demonstrations.”
His response failed to satisfy protesters who took to the streets and declared the city a “liberated zone.” As political scientist Charles Tripp has observed, “this was too great a challenge to the authorities, and at the end of April, a military operation was put in motion with the aim of reasserting government control, whatever the cost in human life.”
The Assad regime reacted ruthlessly, laying siege to the town with tanks and soldiers. Security forces cut water, electricity and phone lines, and posted snipers on rooftops, according to residents quoted by The New York Times. At the same time however, according to another report, unknown gunmen in Dara’a killed 19 Syrian soldiers.
Meanwhile, protests had begun spreading to other towns, fed by social media campaigns. By late April, government forces had reportedly killed several hundred protesters. Dozens of their own were killed as well.
In early April, for example, nine Syrian soldiers on their way to quell demonstrations in Banyas were ambushed and gunned down on the highway outside of town. Western news media suggested they were killed by Syrian security forces for refusing to fire on demonstrators, a fanciful tale that was analyzed and demolished by Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
An opposition leader based in Paris, who urged local demonstrators to remain non-violent, told Landis that he had been approached by three groups “to provide money and weapons to the rebels in Syria.” They included “several pro-American Syrian opposers” whom he refused to name. He declared that anyone providing money and weapons to the rebels was “pushing them to commit suicide,” a prescient warning.
The Failure to Report
As Landis concluded, “Western press and analysts did not want to recognize that armed elements were becoming active. They preferred to tell a simple story of good people fighting bad people. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the opposition was peaceful and was being met with deadly government force and snipers. One only wonders why that story could not have been told without also covering the reality – that armed elements, whose agenda was not peaceful, were also playing a role.”
He also accused the Western press of similarly misreporting a massacre of government security forces in early June, 2011, in the city of Jeser al-Shagour — a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold near the Turkish border — where some 140 members of the police and security forces were slaughtered.
Several Western news accounts uncritically recited claims from local activists that the victims had mutinied against their commanders and been killed by government forces. But video footage of the fighting was “fairly conclusive in corroborating the original government version of events: the soldiers stationed in the town were overrun by armed and organized opposition,” Landis noted.
In the city of Hama, another video emerged, showing rebels dumping the bodies of soldiers off a highway bridge. As CNN reported on Aug. 2, 2011, “One prominent anti-government activist, who asked not to be named because of the dangers that could arise from the release of the information, told CNN the state TV account was correct. The bodies are those of Syrian secret police killed by Syrian fighters from Iraq who have joined the anti-government fight.”
The same activist insisted that such anti-government violence was the exception, not the rule, but admitted that it gave “credence to the Syrian government’s assertion that it is targeting ‘armed gangs.’” […]