USA TODAY US Edition
Despite regime’s grip, Syrians rally on
Forces gun down seven protesters
BEIRUT — With uprisings all over the Arab world, opponents of the Syrian regime of dictator Bashar Assad called for their own “Days of Rage” protests in a handful of cities in early February. Marchers turned out in only one town, and they were beaten by the notorious Syrian secret police, who took away and imprisoned dozens of protesters. It did not end there. Protests have been taking place all over Syria in the past few weeks. Despite emergency laws that for nearly 50 years have banned public gatherings, the number of people attending is growing, as are their complaints.
On Wednesday, Syrian forces gunned down seven protesters hiding in a mosque in the southern city of Daraa, bringing to 13 the number of protesters killed by Syrian security forces in recent days. The killings came a day after hundreds of people marched against the government for a fifth consecutive day.
“The protests are a sign that a new generation of Syrians is becoming aware of their right to freedom, dignity and equal rights. They are increasingly edu- cated and interconnected,” said Bashar al-Ayssami, a member of the Syrian opposition residing in Washington.
Assad has said his country is immune from uprisings because he is in touch with the people. Opponents say the calm in Syria compared to places like Egypt and Libya has more to do with brutal repression of the people and the media than Assad’s leadership.
“These protests are significant, because they are happening at all,” said Andrew Tabler, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Like many other Arab dictatorships, Syria has been ruled by one family for decades and has sought to keep its place by inheritance of power and brutality.
Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, cameto power in a 1971 coup as a member of the Baath Party, an Arab political movement that purged Arab nations of Western influence and tried to unite them under socialist systems. It was the same party through which SaddamHussein gained power in Iraq.
Hafez Assad maintained power for nearly 30 years, during which he was ruthless against his perceived enemies. In one of the greatest slaughters in the modern Middle East, Assad ordered the army to bombard the town of Hama in 1982 to crush a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. An estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people were killed, according to the U.S. State Department.
When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar returned from London, where he had been studying ophthalmology, and was installed as president of this country of 22 million. He continues his father’s practice of jailing opponents, according to the State Department. He has also been accused by the United States of facilitating the movement of terrorists into Iraq and of trying to build a secret nuclear plant that was destroyed by the Israelis in 2007.
Anger among Syrians has also become widespread because of poverty, high unemployment, inflation and the lack of freedoms. There are thousands of political prisoners in Syrian jails, and major opposition groups are banned. The government also blocks access to several Internet sites and maintains strict control of the media.
Activist Haytham al Maleh said in an interview last week that more than 4,000 political detainees were rotting in Syrian jails.
The fear and isolation that have kept the people quiet for years has eroded over the past few months because of uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world and because of the effects of news channel al-Jazeera and the social media, said Joshua Landis, associate professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
In the ancient alleyways of Damascus and Daraa, dozens of protesters have been marching and chanting in recent days, “God, Syria and freedom!” Angry crowds set fire to the headquarters of the Baath Party and two phone company branches in Daraa including Syriatel, which is owned by Ramy Makhlouf, the cousin and business manager of Bashar Assad.
The U.S. Department of Treasury slapped sanctions against Makhlouf in 2008, alleging that he has used Syria’s intelligence officials to intimidate his business rivals and build an empire in the telecommunications, commercial, oil, gas and banking sectors.
“It’s interesting that the riots took place in Daraa, an area where the regime enjoys wide support and which is the hometown of several members of the political apparatus, including Vice President Farouk al-Shara,” Tabler said. “We always thought that the problems would start in traditional Islamic hotbeds in the north, like Aleppo and Hama, and the Kurdish areas in the northeast.”
The protest movement has gained momentum in cities such as Aleppo, Qamishli and Banyas but turned violent in Daraa, a city close to Jordan, when 15 schoolchildren were detained for writing pro-democracy graffiti. Last week, seven people were killed after police opened fire on demonstrators.
The demonstrations took root on Facebook and have now become a movement called the March 15 Intifada. Assad is faced with a dilemma: how to change to please the masses without losing the support of those who put him in power and demand their share of the country’s spoils. The Assad regime is made up largely of Alawites, a sect of Shiite Islam in a country that is majority Sunni Muslim.
Al-Shara said Tuesday that Assad was committed to “continue the path of reform and modernization in Syria,” Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV reported, adding he “cannot be against any Syrian citizen.”
In Geneva, the United Nations Office for Human Rights said the authorities “need to put an immediate halt to the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, especially the use of live ammunition.”
Tabler warned that real change will hurt the networks around the minoritybased regime. “But without it, Assad risks popular uprisings and possibly regime collapse,” he said.
Assad has promised to improve economic, legal and business conditions. He has also delayed imposing a national sales tax. He has provided more rights to Kurds, who are treated as second-class citizens, by giving them access to universities and better job conditions.
And Assad is resorting to a ubiquitous excuse in the Arab world: blaming Israel.
In defending attacks against protesters, Syrian government spokesman Al Watan said Israel was instigating the riots. He claimed that a Syrian communications company said text messages encouraging the uprising were sent from a military base in Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv.