SYRIAN REGIME DEPLOYS MILITARY IN NAVAL PORT OF LATAKIA
For the first time in his 11 years as ruler of Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has deployed elements of the Syrian military against a domestic target – the protesters that had taken to the streets of the Syrian port of Latakia to demand political and economic reforms (Reuters, March 28). The insertion of the military on March 27 came as official sources reported the death of 12 individuals in Latakia on March 26, including demonstrators and security officials (Syrian Arab News Agency [SANA], March 27).
Though the region surrounding Latakia is dominated by members of the ruling Alawite faith, the city itself (350 km northwest of Damascus) is a mix of Alawites, Sunni Muslims and Christians. Since a 1966 internal coup within the Ba’ath Party, Alawites have dominated Syrian politics despite being a national minority that many orthodox Muslims believe has only superficial connections to Islam. Alawites continue to dominate the highest ranks of the Syrian military and the intelligence services.
Latakia was recently in the news as the port where two Iranian naval ships docked after passing through the Suez Canal (see Terrorism Monitor, March 10). While in Latakia, Iranian Admiral Habibollah Sayyari and Syrian naval commander Lieutenant General Talib al-Barri signed an agreement of mutual naval cooperation (Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran Radio 1, February 26). The small Syrian Navy consists of two frigates, at least ten missile attack craft and a host of smaller craft. Latakia is one of four ports used by the Syrian Navy.
Syrian officials were incensed by remarks from Muslim Brother and well-known Islamic scholar Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who told a Doha mosque congregation that Arab regimes such as Syria’s were failing to learn from each other’s mistakes, continuing repressive policies despite the “train of the Arab revolution” having arrived in Syria. Al-Qaradawi described Assad as “a prisoner of his corrupted entourage” and predicted that the Syrian army would play “a decisive role” in determining Syria’s future (Gulf Times, March 26). Assad’s media advisor responded to the shaykh’s charges by saying: “’According to all Koranic or faith logic, it is not up to a cleric to incite sedition; and this is not one of the tasks of men of religion at all” (al-Watan [Damascus], March 27).
The Assad regime has taken extraordinary lengths to pin responsibility for the disturbances on a host of foreign sources rather than acknowledge discontent within Syria. On March 11, Syrian security forces reported seizing a shipment of arms from Iraq that was crossing the border into Syria in a refrigerated truck (SANA, March 11). Iranian and Hezbollah sources have described an anti-Syrian conspiracy centered on the Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Movement) led by former Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri. Syrian authorities tied the movement to the reported seizure of seven boats from Lebanon to Latakia with cargoes of weapons, money and narcotics. Hariri was also connected to Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, who was accused of “guiding the complex American and [Saudi] Arabian plan for creating unrest in Syria” (Fars News Agency, March 29). A Lebanese MP denied the allegations, noting the Future Movement did not even have weapons to defend itself (LBC, March 29). Syria’s Grand Mufti, Shaykh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, took to national TV on March 25 to confirm that external “instigation” is seeking to undermine the anti-Israel “resistance” (Day Press [Damascus], March 26). Israel’s Foreign Ministry in turn attempted to implicate Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the attacks on demonstrators by saying demonstrators heard some members of the security services speaking Farsi (Hezbollah members speak Arabic rather than Farsi) (Israeli Defense Force Radio, March 27; Jerusalem Post, March 28).
Syrian officials also blamed the violence in Latakia on Palestinians from the al-Raml refugee camp outside the city. The allegations were denied by Ahmad Jibril, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), which runs the camp and is known for its loyalty to the Syrian regime. The Syrian claims were strongly criticized in the Jordanian press, which asked why Palestinian refugees would volunteer to shoot demonstrators who are their “kin and neighbors” (al-Dustur, March 28; al-Ra’y, March 28). A Syrian spokesperson noted that among those arrested in Latakia were one Egyptian, one Algerian and five Lebanese and pointed to a foreign conspiracy: “The only side happy with what is happening in Syria is Israel, and some members of [U.S.] Congress who are mobilizing against Syria” (al-Watan, March 27). Damascus has been organizing pro-government marches in which the participants stress “their rejection and condemnation of the organized foreign campaigns targeting Syria’s safety, stability and national unity” (SANA, March 26).
In his first remarks on the unrest in Syria, President Assad declined on March 30 to repeal the 1963 emergency law with its wide powers for repression, a key demand of the protesters. Having identified the source of Syria’s unrest as a “foreign conspiracy,” the president’s speech was followed by hundreds of protesters taking to the streets of Latakia to chant “Freedom” (Reuters, March 30). The Syrian cabinet resigned en masse on March 29 as Facebook activists try to organize massive anti-government rallies for Friday, April 1.
UGANDA’S COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP WITH LIBYA’S MU’AMMAR QADDAFI
In a surprise announcement, Uganda has offered refuge to Libya’s embattled leader, Mu’ammar Qaddafi (AP, March 30). The offer came at the same time as Ugandan government institutions began seizing Libyan assets and investments in Uganda. Libya has extensive investments in Uganda through its Libyan African Investment Portfolio. Among those assets seized are Uganda Telecom (69% Libyan ownership) the Tropical Bank (99.7% Libyan ownership) and the four-star Lake Victoria Hotel (99% Libyan ownership) (New Vision [Kampala], March 29; Daily Monitor [Kampala], March 1). Total Libyan investment in Uganda is estimated at $375 million. Libya is also a major source of funds for the African Union and the Ugandan-dominated African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Qaddafi’s most controversial involvement with Uganda came in 1979, when he sent 2,500 Libyan troops together with armor, rockets, artillery and air cover to support Ugandan dictator Idi Amin from an invasion by Ugandan dissidents supported by Tanzanian regulars. Only a year after Major General Idi Amin seized power in Uganda, Qaddafi had managed to persuade him to abandon his Israeli patrons in return for substantial cash donations and investment. The deployment was a military disaster. Far from saving Amin, the arrival of the Libyan troops was interpreted by Amin’s defenders (many of whom were Sudanese) as an opportunity to flee Kampala with looted goods as the Libyans provided cover against the encroaching anti-Amin forces. Many of the Libyans appear to have been told they were going to southern Libya for military exercises. Confusion reigned and the Libyan forces were shattered. Casualties were heavy as the survivors were taken prisoner by the invaders. There were many reports of captured prisoners being executed while some luckier Libyan troops were eventually repatriated to Libya, where Idi Amin also sought refuge before moving on to permanent exile in Saudi Arabia.
Despite this military humiliation, Qaddafi continued to seek influence in Ugandan affairs, an agenda that was assisted by a 1981 encounter with future Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, at that point still a guerrilla leader opposing the Ugandan government of Milton Obote (possibly an even worse leader than Idi Amin). Museveni had also fought with the Ugandan dissidents against Libyan troops in Kampala in 1979, though this did not initially pose a problem in the relationship between the two men. Qaddafi began supplying Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) with supplies of badly needed arms and munitions, enabling Museveni’s triumph in 1986.
The skyline of Kampala is dominated by the massive Qaddafi National Mosque, an elaborate building funded by the Libyan leader, who incensed Uganda’s Christian majority at the 2008 opening by claiming the Bible was a forgery and inviting Ugandan Christians to visit Mecca. Qaddafi was also scheduled on the same trip to unveil a plaque near the Tanzanian border honoring the Libyan soldiers who intervened on Amin’s side in 1979. However, the event was cancelled and Qaddafi made a hasty return to Tripoli after a prominent Ugandan Muslim, Shaykh Obeid Kamulegeya, allegedly informed Qaddafi that Museveni’s faction of fighters had been responsible for the slaughter of captured Libyan troops at a Roman Catholic convent outside of Kampala (Uganda Record, December 21, 2010). A year later there were reports that Ugandan intelligence had discovered Libya had sent funds to support anti-Museveni riots in September 2009 (Kampala FM, September 20, 2009).
Some light on Museveni’s views of Qaddafi was shed by U.S. embassy cables exposed by Wikileaks. In 2007, Museveni complained to Africa Bureau Assistant Secretary Jendayi Frazer that Qaddafi was using bribery and intimidation to persuade West African states to sign on to a union of African states under Qaddafi’s leadership (cable of September 14, 2007, carried by the Guardian, December 7, 2010). Frazer again met with Museveni several months after Qaddafi’s abrupt departure from Uganda. While the Ugandan leader continued to be critical of Qaddafi’s efforts to create a “United States of Africa,” Museveni now confided he was afraid Qaddafi would try to kill him by attacking his plane in international airspace (cable of June 18, 2008, carried by the Guardian, December 7, 2010).
Given Libya’s lengthy and complicated relationship with Uganda, President Museveni penned an open letter on his views of the relationship published by Ugandan dailies (New Vision, March 22). Museveni began by listing a series of “mistakes” by the Libyan leader. These included:
• Backing Idi Amin under the mistaken assessment that Uganda was a “Muslim country” where Amin and other Muslims were oppressed by Christians.
• Qaddafi’s insistence on creating a “United States of Africa” under his own leadership.
• Proclaiming himself an African “King of Kings” by bypassing legitimate African political leaders to appeal directly to traditional African leaders such as local kings or chiefs, most of whom now perform only ceremonial roles in Africa.
• Ignoring the plight of South Sudan to support the Arab leadership of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, now wanted on war crimes charges laid by the International Criminal Court.
• Failing to distance himself from terrorism and the use of indiscriminate violence.
Nevertheless, Museveni also listed a number of qualities possessed by the Libyan leader while describing the importance of Qaddafi’s provision of arms to Museveni’s fighters in 1981: “Qaddafi, whatever his faults, is a true nationalist. I prefer nationalists to puppets of foreign interests.” Describing the Libyan leader as a “moderate,” Museveni pointed to the development of Libya during Qaddafi’s time in power, his advocacy of women’s rights and his opposition to “Islamic fundamentalism.”
The Ugandan president also had harsh words for the Libyan rebel movement: “Regarding the Libyan opposition, I would feel embarrassed to be backed by Western war planes. Quislings of foreign interests have never helped Africa… If the Libyan opposition groups are patriots, they should fight their war by themselves… After all, they easily captured so much equipment from the Libyan Army, [so] why do they need foreign military support? I had only 27 rifles [when Museveni started his campaign to liberate Uganda].”