Syria Pulls Its Armed Forces From Some Contested Cities
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
June 29, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian military and the government’s security forces have largely withdrawn from one of the country’s largest cities as well as other areas, residents and activists said Wednesday, leaving territory to protesters whose demonstrations have grown larger and whose chants have taunted a leadership that once inspired deep fear.
The military’s move out of Hama, where a government crackdown a generation ago made its name synonymous with the brutality of the ruling Assad family, has surprised even some activists and diplomats. They differ over how to interpret the government’s decision there, asking whether the departure points to a government attempt to avoid casualties and another potentially explosive clash in a restive country, or to an exhausted repressive apparatus stretched too thin.
But residents in Hama, the fourth largest city in Syria, have celebrated the departure as a victory that came after one of the worst bouts of bloodshed there in the nearly four-month uprising.
“Hama is a liberated city,” declared one activist who gave his name as Hainin.
Residents and activists say the military and security forces have also withdrawn from Abu Kamal, near the border with Iraq, and some suburbs of the capital, Damascus. In Dayr az Zawr, a large city in the east, the military has remained on the outskirts, although security forces are said to still be operating inside the city.
The events in Hama and elsewhere around the country underscore the new dynamics in the uprising, as neither the government nor the protesters can resolve the crisis on their terms. An opposition meeting on Monday openly called for an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power — and parts of the meeting were broadcast on Syrian television, usually an instrument of the government. The committees behind the street protests are becoming better organized, and a weak economy once instrumental to the government’s vision continues to stagger.
“I feel like we’re in a stalemate, and while the stalemate is not pretty — in fact, it’s ugly — it only works in the opposition’s favor,” said an Obama administration official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Time is on the opposition’s side.”
Government forces have withdrawn from cities before — namely Baniyas on the Mediterranean coast and Dara’a in the south — only to return even more relentlessly. But the scale of the departure and the size of Hama seem to set apart the experience there.
“I don’t think it’s a tactic,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group. “It’s exhaustion, a lack of resources and a lack of finances.”
Hama is a city whose name remains seared in the memory of many Syrians. In the culmination of a battle between the government and an armed Islamic opposition, the military stormed Hama in 1982, killing at least 10,000 people and perhaps far more. Some residents said that Hama’s place in history had made the state more reluctant to crack down this time.
“We learned from our mistakes,” said a teacher in Hama, who gave his name as Abu Omar. Like many interviewed there, he agreed to speak only on the condition of partial anonymity. “To make a revolution halfway,” he added, “is to dig our own tombs.”
On June 3, government forces and protesters clashed in the city, which is along a strategic highway linking Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. By activists’ count, as many as 73 people in Hama were killed, though Syrian officials said their security forces also suffered casualties. Syrian officials said an agreement was reached afterward according to which protests would be permitted, as long as they remained peaceful and no property was damaged. Some residents confirmed that an agreement was indeed concluded this month.
Since then, some said, even the traffic police had withdrawn.
“The security and the army are completely absent,” said a resident who gave his name as Abu Abdo. “They are not harassing us at all, neither before nor during the daily rallies, which have been gathering day and night. There are no patrols. Life is normal.”
In bigger numbers, protesters in Hama have gathered at night in Aasi Square, which they said they had renamed Freedom Square, and promised bigger demonstrations Friday. Activists said the city’s mayor addressed the crowds there Wednesday night. When he asked what their demands were, one activist recalled that protesters replied, “The overthrow of the regime.”
The mayor soon left, they said.
Other protesters there have taunted other cities and the leadership. “Oh youth of Damascus,” went one chant, “we’re in Hama, and we’ve toppled the regime.”
In an echo of the early days of the Egyptian revolution, when a crumbling authoritarian order inspired a new sense of citizenship, some activists say residents have taken to sweeping the streets in front of their homes and shops, volunteers have kept the main squares clean and drivers have adhered to traffic rules in the absence of the police.
Syrian officials played down the idea that the departure of government forces suggested a void in their authority. Since the beginning of the uprising, the government has said that much of the violence has occurred in clashes with armed opponents and, indeed, American officials have corroborated the existence of insurgents in some areas in Syria.
“Our policy has been that if the demonstrators are peaceful, if they do not wreak havoc or destroy public property, no security will harass them,” Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. “The universal orders are not to harass demonstrators as long as those demonstrators are peaceful.”
Mr. Moustapha estimated that 9 out of 10 protests began and ended peacefully.
The American official suggested that the violence was a response to government repression. When the government’s forces withdraw, the official said, the situation becomes peaceful again.
“That’s what Hama has demonstrated,” the official said.
The departure could also suggest at least some recognition on the part of the government that a brutal crackdown cannot succeed. In Dayr az Zawr and Abu Kamal, officials removed statues of Mr. Assad’s father, in what seemed an acknowledgment that they were not worth the bloodshed that would be required to save them from protesters.
“Everyone is stuck, at this point,” said Mr. Tarif, the human rights advocate. “The regime is stuck, the protesters are stuck and the opposition is stuck.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.