Violent Clashes as Thousands Protest in Cities Across Syria
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
June 17, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Thousands of protesters poured into the streets in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, and in three of the country’s five largest cities on Friday, in a weekly show of defiance that came days before President Bashar al-Assad was expected to address Syrians for the first time in two months. Activists said at least 19 people were killed and dozens wounded.
Security forces fired on protesters in Homs, one of Syria’s most restive locales, and the police and protesters fought in Deir al-Zour, a large city in the east. But thousands were permitted to demonstrate in Kiswa, a town south of Damascus, where demonstrators carried banners that read, “Leave!” and “The people want the fall of the regime.”
Some opposition figures had speculated that the government might try to bring down a death toll that surged past 100 on one Friday in anticipation of Mr. Assad’s speech, which may come as early as Sunday. Syrian officials have portrayed the address as significant, though many in the opposition said their expectations were low.
As the day wore on, the toll approached 22, the number killed last Friday.
“We want freedom and dignity but not under President Bashar,” said a 30-year-old farmer in Kiswa who gave his name as Abdel-Rahman. “He keeps promising for three months on reforms but all we see is more killing and suffering.”
The government’s crackdown has forced nearly 10,000 refugees across the northern border with Turkey and, on Friday, its repercussions spilled into Lebanon, where rival groups clashed after a protest against Mr. Assad in the northern city of Tripoli.
Three people were killed there, including an off-duty soldier, the police said. The clash erupted in a part of Tripoli that has often witnessed trouble between Sunni Muslims and Alawites, a minority heterodox sect that serves as the backbone of Mr. Assad’s rule.
The crackdown has brought international condemnation of a leadership that has ruled Syria for more than four decades. Diplomats have spoken of growing pressure on Mr. Assad, who has taken steps that have so far proved largely superficial, and Syrian officials have suggested that a more serious dialogue may ensue with opposition figures.
On Thursday, in a symbolic but humiliating episode, the country’s richest businessman, Rami Makhlouf, a reviled cousin of Mr. Assad, was forced to announce that he would devote himself to charity and avoid any new deals that brought him profit.
“You can’t do charity with the millions you stole from us,” read a banner carried by hundreds of demonstrators on Friday in Zabadani, a town on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital.
Since the start of the uprising in mid-March, the government and opposition have cast it in a different light. At times, government officials have acknowledged some of the protesters’ demands as legitimate, while insisting that armed groups have hijacked the movement. The opposition says the government is exaggerating the threat posed by armed groups and contends that the demonstrations are overwhelmingly peaceful.
Syrian state television said a policeman was killed and more than 20 were wounded when armed groups opened fire on them. It said six police officers were also wounded when gunmen attacked a police station in Deir al-Zour. Nawaf al-Bashir, an opposition figure in the city, said security forces killed two civilians there and wounded nine people.
The government has barred most foreign journalists from reporting in Syria, and it was almost impossible to reconcile the typically contradictory accounts.
Activists said the worst violence on Friday occurred in Homs, Syria’s third largest city and a center of the uprising, and the province of Idlib, a conservative Sunni Muslim region in the north that military forces have sought to return to the government’s control.
Activists said protests also occurred at the university in Aleppo and in other parts of the city, Syria’s second largest and a linchpin for the government’s durability. So far, the city has remained relatively quiescent, but activists said one protester had been killed there.
On the Turkish border, 200 refugees living in a makeshift tent city staged their own protest against the government, raising a banner that read “We hate you: Get away” and chanting “The people want the fall of the regime,” a cry voiced across the Arab world. Scores of children participated, waving branches plucked from the trees.
There were conflicting reports about the posture of the Syrian military, which has deployed to town after restive town. Some activists said that, in contrast to past weeks, the military did not participate in the crackdown on Friday, leaving the task to security forces and paramilitaries. Mr. Bashir said they had withdrawn from Deir al-Zour, where they had deployed just last week. Other activists said that they remained there and that additional military forces had begun an assault on the town of Dael, in southern Syria.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Liam Stack from Guvecci, Turkey.