CAIRO – Military troops opened fire during protests in the southern part of Syria on Friday and killed peaceful demonstrators, according to witnesses and news reports, hurtling the strategically important nation along the same trajectory that has altered the landscape of power across the Arab world.
Syrian protesters shouted anti-Assad slogans outside the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. Thousands of Syrians took to the streets Friday demanding reforms.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators in the southern city of Dara’a and in other cities and towns around the nation took to the streets in protest, defying a state that has once again demonstrated its willingness to use lethal force.
It was the most serious challenge to 40 years of repressive rule by the Assad family since 1982, when the president at the time, Hafez al-Assad, massacred at least 10,000 protesters in Hama, a city in northern Syria.
Human rights groups said that since protests began seven days ago in the south, 38 people had been killed by government forces – and it appeared that many more were killed on Friday. Precise details were hard to obtain because the government sealed off the area to reporters and would not let foreign news media into the country.
“Syria’s security forces are showing the same cruel disregard for protesters’ lives as their counterparts in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The new round of protests and bloodshed came one day after the Syrian government tried to appease an increasingly angry popular revolt with talk of improved political freedoms and promises of restraint.
Instead, it unleashed its forces, firing on peaceful demonstrators in and near Dara’a, according to a witness. There were reports of security forces firing on civilians in cities around the country, as well. For the first time since the protests began, crowds called for the downfall of the government and in one instance tore down a billboard-size photo of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
Ahmed Sayasna, the imam of the Omari mosque in Dara’a, said the violence began after crowds set a fire under a statue of former President Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father. Speaking by telephone, Mr. Sayasna said thousands of people gathered near the statue after Friday Prayer when officers from Syria’s central security forces lobbed tear gas canisters and opened fire with live ammunition. He said about 20 people were killed, and many more wounded.
In Sanamayn, a city of 27,000 people about 40 miles north of Dara’a, a video posted on YouTube showed at least seven bloodied bodies lying on stretchers, at least three clearly with gunshot wounds. Mr. Sayasna said 10 to 15 people were killed there, while residents told The Associated Press that as many as 20 people had been killed. These figures could not be independently confirmed. In the capital, Damascus, several hundred protesters tried to rally, but were quickly dispersed by security forces as pro-government supporters took to the streets honking car horns and waving photographs of President Assad. In the city’s majestic Umayyad mosque, some men rose from prayer shouting “God, Syria and freedom only” – a counterpoint to the chants of pro-government supporters. There were also reports of troops firing on demonstrators in the suburbs of Damascus.
In Latakia, President Assad’s hometown, two people died as protesters faced off against pro-government supporters, a witness said. A video posted on YouTube shows the body of a young man with a bullet wound being carried by protesters. There were reports of scattered protests and scores of arrests in several other cities.
On Thursday, a longtime minister and adviser to the president, Bouthaina Shaaban, appeared to edge close to an apology for the deaths, insisting that the president had ordered security forces not to fire. Ms. Shaaban then laid out what she framed as concessions, saying that the government promised to consider lifting a state of emergency in place for decades and would consider more political freedoms – offerings that were dismissed out of hand by the public because they had been put forth before, in 2005, and never carried out.
President Assad “doesn’t want the bloodshed at all, and I witnessed his directives on not using live bullets whatever the circumstances as he is keen on every citizen,” Ms. Shaaban said.
“This doesn’t mean that there are no mistakes or practices which were not unsatisfactory and not up to the required level,” she said.
Less than 24 hours later, witnesses reported that live fire was again turned on unarmed protesters.
“This is exactly what has been happening around the Arab world,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian opposition activist who is living in self-imposed exiled in the United Arab Emirates. “Sixty percent of Syrian society is less than 24 years old, and they want to be part of drawing and designing their future.”
Mr. Sayasna, the imam in Dara’a, whose prominence in the community allows him to speak openly, unlike others there, said: “We are hoping for peace and quiet. The people only want freedom and dignity and an end to the emergency law.”
Syria’s emergency law, in place since the Baath Party took power in 1963, has long been a focus of critics, who say it grants the government license to jail anyone with little pretext.
Syria has few resources, but a strategic location bordering Iraq, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan that its leaders have often tried to use as leverage. It has rankled the West and its Arab neighbors by forging close ties to Iran and by helping to sponsor Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, the militant group controlling the Gaza Strip.
The cascading events in Syria bear a remarkable resemblance to the course taken in other nations in the Arab world, where a relatively small incident – in this case the arrest of children who scrawled graffiti: “The people want the fall of the regime” in Dara’a – led to protests and a lethal government response. That in turn fueled wider rage, prompting government talk of concessions that were too little, too late.
“There’s a real change in attitude from a couple of months ago, when Syrians were watching this take place in other countries,” said one Western diplomat in Damascus. “Now it’s here, and the government is very concerned.”
The Syrian government “is sending a very mixed message – holding out carrots like the concessions announced on Thursday, and then beating and arresting and even opening fire on protesters,” the diplomat said. “I assume that indicates a lack of agreement or coordination in the government.”
Karim Émile Bitar, a researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, said: “They tried to use the classic Baathist method: You wave a few carrots with one hand, while the other one is holding a huge stick. But the massacres in Dara’a are only going to strengthen the protest movements.”
Syria has a liability not found in the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt – it is a majority Sunni nation ruled by a religious minority. The ruling Assads and their circle are Alawite, a sect of Shiite Islam. Hafez al-Assad forged his power base through fear, co-optation and sect loyalty. He built an alliance with an elite Sunni business community, and created multiple security services staffed primarily by Alawites. Those security forces have a great deal to lose if the government falls, experts said, because they are part of a widely despised minority, and so have the incentive of self-preservation.
The killings in Hama, when the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Sunni organization, moved against the government, resonate to this day – both for a resentful populace and for a government that fears revenge for its past actions.
“These minority regimes are galvanized against defections and splitting,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They believe if the regime comes down, they fear being slaughtered by the Sunni majority after what happened in the past. It makes it likely if these protests get bigger, it will be very bloody.”
Sectarian tensions did not initially motivate this conflict. But they have begun to emerge. Mr. Tabler and Joshua M. Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the demonstrators had started chanting: “No to Iran, to Hezbollah. We want a leader who fears God.”
That, they said, is a direct reference to the Alawite faith of the leadership.
“What makes this all surprising at this point is this is an area of Syria that is traditionally pro regime,” Mr. Tabler said. “So what the regime has been doing is suppressing a major Sunni base, all because a group of kids wrote graffiti on the wall.”
The government had initially insisted that the protests and deaths were the work of criminals brought across the border from Jordan. A vice president and former foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, who is from the Dara’a region, said Thursday, “We are not opposed to the Islamic currents that are rational and broad-minded which understand their true roots, but as for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which take their instructions from America and pretend that they are against it, they are condemnable.”
And yet, even government supporters appeared taken aback by the decision to use lethal force. “The government believes we have to give people more freedom,” said Muhammad Habash, a moderate Islamist cleric and member of Parliament. But he added: “There was a very clear decision by the government to use guns. We are against using guns against people, there is no justification for using violence.”
But Syria state television behaved as if the violence and protests had simply not occurred: it broadcast images of government demonstrations in every Syrian city, with crowds shouting “God, Syria and Bashar only.”
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