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SYRIA: Unrest Spreads Further

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Apr 18 2011 (IPS) - Despite scarce official news reports emerging from Syria, information leaking out from activists on the ground describe the situation as deteriorating. While the government remains vague about events unfolding in the country, Friday prayers continue to ignite dissent that seems to be spreading to all social classes.

“People are very angry, especially since men arrested in the city of Banyas were released and accounts of torture circulated among residents,” says one activist, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Al Jazeera reported on Apr. 13 that at least 200 male residents in Banyas were apprehended by security forces. According to the activist, in response, the women of the city demonstrated on Thursday for their release.

“The revolution has developed its own dynamics. When the regime kills protesters, it creates more anger on the streets, which leads to more protests,” says Anas al-Abdah, a founding member of the Syrian opposition group, Movement for Justice and Development.

This week, demonstrations saw a turnout of thousands, with the pro-democracy movement spreading to other cities like Baida, Latakia, Douma (a suburb of Damascus) and Homs. In the village of Ain Arab in northern Syria, some 600 Kurds held a one-hour peaceful protest, according to AFP.

Al Jazeera reported Sunday that at least five people were killed amid protests near the Syrian city of Homs. It quoted government sources saying that two policemen were killed in the town of Talbiseh on Sunday while other reports claimed protesters had been killed.

Amnesty International reports that the conflict in Syria has resulted in 171 deaths to date, and a list submitted by one activist indicates that there have been 972 arrests.

“The regime has chosen the course of violent clampdown. It cannot back down at this stage, so yes, I foresee a lot more bloodshed. But I stress that the violence is perpetrated by one side only,” says Abdah.

On Friday, President Bashar al-Assad announced the release of hundreds of protestors, except those involved in ‘criminal’ acts. The Syrian government has repeatedly claimed that ‘gangs’ are behind much of the violence targeting the country. The country’s official news syndicate Sana, quoting an official source, added that 19 people, including members of the security forces, were killed by ‘armed gangs’.

“Armed men are regime-hired thugs known as ‘shabiha’, who are sent into neighbourhoods to attack protesters,” says Abdah.

Pro-state media has blamed the uprising on an external plot to overthrow al-Assad, accusing the U.S., Saudi Arabia and anti-Syrian Lebanese factions – allegations Syrian activists finds laughable.

Such claims have not deterred protestors, who initially called for freedom but are now demanding regime change. “While the protests have been very limited in scope and number in large cities like Damascus and Aleppo, the fact that they are happening at all is significant,” says one activist.

“Syria is witnessing the re-emergence of civil society, one that is in its embryonic stage, with local community leaders emerging and directing the protest movement,” adds Abdah.

In response, the Syrian government is relying on a dual approach: while heavily cracking down on protestors, it also accepted to meet with a delegation from Daraa, a city that has become a symbol of Syrian dissent. On Saturday, President al-Assad promised that the emergency law in place since 1963 will be lifted by Apr. 25. The implementation of reforms has become a real necessity for the regime, if it wants to survive.

But while promises of change are made, the violence continues. In recent weeks, killings among military ranks have spurred speculation that soldiers are being executed for refusing to shoot at demonstrators.

Abdah contends that while there are ‘elite’ army units loyal to the Assad family, the vast majority is comprises ordinary Syrians. “The rift within the army has already begun. There are confirmed reports of conscripts and junior officers being executed for disobeying orders to fire on protesters. We have the names of these people. There are also confirmed reports of conscripts deserting in order to avoid killing civilians,” he adds.

If the use of excessive force against civilians persists, the army hierarchy will be faced with a difficult choice: either acting as an active participant in the bloody crackdown, or taking a stand against security forces.

However, a recent statement issued by the Syrian ministry of interior does not indicate that the regime is likely to change its tactics, hinting that in fact violence against protesters could escalate: “There is no more room for leniency or tolerance in enforcing the law, preserving the security of the country and citizens, and protecting public order.”

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