x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Mystery surrounds Syrian vice president

Arabic editorials also comment on Shiite clerics in Lebanon condemning Syrian regime and the shooting of a teenager in Bahrain.

The mystery of the absence of the Syrian vice president continues to fuel the rumour mill

The whereabouts of the Syrian vice president, Farouk Al Sharaa, have become a real mystery, as the man has not made a public appearance or spoken in person to the media for a suspiciously long period of time, wrote columnist Abdullah Nasser Al Oteibi in yesterday's edition of the London-based newspaper Al Hayat.

Every time Damascus wants to put out a message denying rumours of the assassination or defection of the regime's No 2, it calls on Abdussalam Hijab, Mr Al Sharaa's press secretary, to speak on his behalf.

"There have been three occasions so far when the press officer intervened," the columnist said.

The first occasion was last year when rumour spread that Mr Al Sharaa had been killed by Maher Al Assad, the Syrian president's younger brother and commander of the Republican Guard.

It was said to be Mr Al Sharaa's punishment for his condemnation of a regime-perpetrated massacre in the town of Al Sanamayn in the Deraa province, back in March 2011. Mr Al Sharaa, a native of Deraa, had purportedly demanded that all security officers involved in the massacre be held to account, according to the columnist.

Denying the rumour, Mr Al Sharaa's press office said the vice president was "alive and well, executing his daily office duties".

On the second occasion, just a couple of weeks ago, media reports said the vice president and some of his family members had defected. Again, Mr Al Sharaa's press office was quick to quote him as saying: "I'm not betraying my country."

Then, just last week, reports about Mr Al Sharaa's defection spread again, this time supported by a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). His press office again denied it.

"There are only four possible explanations for the mysterious absence of Al Sharaa from the media scene," the columnist argued. "A) He had indeed defected, but is still stuck somewhere in Syria under the protection of the FSA. The time may not be conducive yet to smuggle him out of the country.

"B) He has been put under house arrest for the past month … for fear that he might defect or lead an inside coup.

"C) He had been assassinated at the hands of the regime's hawks for a stance he might have taken that was deemed particularly threatening to the regime's stability.

"And D) - and I'm not really sure if it is the most or least likely - Al Sharaa is still working for Bashar Al Assad, but treading carefully in a way that would allow him to absolve himself from blame when the regime falls."

Speculation is not going to solve this mystery. But one thing is sure, Mr Al Sharaa's silence reveals more than it conceals about the growing mess inside the Syrian regime.

Why Shiites turned against the regime

Two prominent Shiite figures in Lebanon, Sayyed Mohammed Hassan Al Amin and Sayyed Hani Fahs, issued a joint statement two weeks ago voicing their support for the Syrian revolution, which has entered its 18th month this August, according to Atallah Mahajrani, a columnist with the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.

The two clerics, he wrote yesterday, called on the Shiites in Lebanon, Arab intellectuals and the Muslim community at large to bring their support to the people's revolution in Syria.

"We are supporting this revolution as we have supported the Palestinian, Iranian and Libyan revolutions before," their statement said. This is "a turning point" in the uprising against the Syrian regime, the writer noted. "Before this statement, all the signs confirmed that every Shiite faction was standing by the Assad regime."

In fact, some analysts had summed up the Syrian uprising as a Shiite-Sunni struggle - which, though an oversimplification, was a partly accurate assessment until now.

The Shiite clerics issued the statement in full awareness that they may have to pay the price for it, the writer said. Some years ago, Sayyed Fahs' house and office were attacked after another instance where he stood up for freedom.

Some Shiite leaders will stick up for justice, come what may. And they do make a difference, the writer concluded.

Bahrain teen's act did not justify shooting

The Bahraini interior ministry said that Hussam Al Haddad, the Shiite teenager who was shot and killed by security forces on Saturday, had been involved in a Molotov attack on a police patrol near the capital Manama.

Columnist Hani Al Fardan wrote in the Bahraini newspaper Al Wasat yesterday: "If the interior ministry's account of what happened holds true - and it is indeed challenged in its entirety by the father of the shot teenager - then the Molotov attack is certainly condemnable."

However, a teenager's act of violence "does not justify at all" the use of excessive force and shooting to kill, especially when such a heavy-handed response can be avoided, the columnist argued.

"From the pictures of Hussam's body as it was being washed for burial, it is clear that shrapnel had peppered his back, which unequivocally confirms that the teenager had his back turned to the police and was trying to run away, not lunge forward.

"In a case like this, nothing warrants the use of lethal force," the columnist went on. "According to Interior Ministry decision No. 14 of 2012, regarding the code of behaviour of members of the police, force must not be used unless in extreme necessity."

When Hussam had turned his back and was running away, was he still a threat to the police?

* Digest compiled by Achraf El Bahi