Friday, April 22, 2011

Pockets of Protest Continue in Syria

Test of Wills in Syria as Forces Open Fire in Several Cities

By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
April 22, 2011

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Security forces in Syria fired tear gas and live ammunition Friday to disperse thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets of Damascus and at least 10 other towns and cities after noon payers, according to protesters, witnesses and accounts posted on social networking sites. Twenty-four people were killed, they said, though it was not possible to immediately verify that toll.

The breadth of the protests — and people’s willingness to defy security forces who deployed in mass — painted a tableau of turmoil in one of the Arab world’s most repressive countries. In scenes unprecedented only weeks ago, protesters tore down pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and toppled statues of his father, Hafez, in two towns on the capital’s outskirts, according to witnesses and video footage.

In the capital, a city that underlines the very prestige of the Assad family’s four decades of rule, hundreds gathered after prayers at the al-Hassan Mosque. Some of them chanted, “The people want the fall of the government,” a slogan made famous in Egypt and Tunisia. Security forces quickly dispersed the protests with tear gas, witnesses said.

But larger protests gathered on the capital’s outskirts, drawing thousands. In at least one of the protests, police fired tear gas, witnesses said. Other demonstrations occurred across Syria, from Qamishli in the east to Baniyas on the coast.

“Freedom! Freedom!” went another chant. In Baniyas, a banner denounced Mr. Assad and his ruling Baath Party: “No Baath, No Assad, we want to free the country.”

Razan Zeitouneh, an activist with the Syrian Human Rights Information Link in Damascus, basing her account on witnesses, said 10 people were killed in Azra, in southern Syria; two near Homs, Syria’s third-largest city; and 12 in the suburbs of Damascus.

In Homs itself, where major protests erupted this week, activists said large numbers of security forces and police in plain clothes flooded the city, putting up checkpoints and preventing all but a few dozen from gathering. One resident said streets were deserted by afternoon, the silence punctuated every 15 minutes or so by gunfire.

Abu Kamel al-Dimashki, an activist in Homs reached by Skype, said that 16 of those who were protesting went missing. His account could not be confirmed.

“I tried to go there, but I couldn’t,” he said. “The secret police are all over Homs.”

One of the bloodiest episodes occurred in Azra, about 20 miles from Dara’a, a poor town in southwestern Syria that helped unleash the uprising. A protester who gave his name as Abu Ahmad said about 3,000 people had marched toward the town square when they came under fire. He said he brought three of those killed to the mosque — one shot in the head, one in the chest and one in the back — the oldest of whom was 20.

“There is no more fear. No more fear,” Abu Ahmad said by telephone. “We either want to die or to remove him. Death has become something ordinary.”

The aim of both sides is the same: to prove they have the upper hand in the biggest challenge yet to the 40-year rule of the Assad family. While organizers were reluctant to call Friday a decisive moment, they acknowledged that it would signal their degree of support in a country that remained divided, with the government still claiming bastions of support among minorities, loyalists of the Baath Party and wealthier segments of the population.

Residents of Damascus said police officers were seen heading Thursday from a headquarters on the outskirts in Zabadani toward the capital, where military security officers had reportedly turned out in greater numbers. In the restive city of Dara’a, security forces set up checkpoints on Friday, and other deployments were reported in suburbs of the capital like Douma, Maidamiah and Dariah.

The security presence seemed most pronounced in Homs, residents said, as scores of military vehicles loaded with soldiers and equipment were seen on the highway from Damascus. By morning, thousands of police officers and soldiers had taken up positions around mosques in the city and at the New Clock Square, where protesters had tried to stage an Egyptian-style sit-in on Monday night. Some of the police were in plain clothes and others were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, residents said.

Cellphones were hard to reach in Homs, and some land lines had been cut.

On Friday, instructions were delivered to protesters from the main Facebook page, urging them to paint revolutionary graffiti, document the protests with pictures and videos, stay peaceful and chant slogans.

The government has maintained that the uprising is led by militant Islamists, and organizers acknowledge that religious forces like the banned Muslim Brotherhood have taken part. The government has also accused foreign countries of supporting the protests. And, indeed, some of the largest have occurred in cities near Syria’s borders: Dara’a, a poor town in southwestern Syria near Jordan, and Homs, an industrial center near conservative northern Lebanon.

“Homs wasn’t happy with the old governor, but a new one isn’t the urgent issue,” said a government employee who gave his name as Khalid. “We want to change the mentality of how the country is run, not change a governor or his administration.”

Sporadic protests had erupted again Thursday, though their numbers were not as large as in past demonstrations, and they seemed confined to Kurdish areas.

Organizers said about 300 people protested at a university in Hasakah, a city near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, and a larger demonstration occurred in Ayn al-Arab, east of Aleppo. Between 5,000 and 8,000 people marched there, though Mr. Tarif said it seemed more spontaneous than organized. He said the Kurdish leadership in the region had yet to endorse bigger turnouts, debating whether they could instead extract more concessions from a government that has already granted citizenship to as many as 300,000 stateless Kurds.

The debate is a microcosm of a larger one taking place in Syria, where many fear the prospect of chaos or score-settling in the event of the government’s collapse. Many activists said the reforms so far were too little and too late; in the words of Haitham Maleh, an oft-imprisoned activist and former judge, “The mentality of the regime has to change.”

But some worry about the combustibility of a society that is shadowed by sectarian resentments fostered by the government. And many identify that government almost entirely with the Alawite minority, a heterodox Muslim sect that accounts for 10 percent of Syria’s population.

“Let’s be realistic, let’s not destroy the country,” said Camille Otrakji, a Damascus-born political blogger in Montreal. “Why do you think there aren’t millions in the street demonstrating against Bashar? It’s not because they’re afraid of the security forces. It’s because they’re afraid of what would replace Assad.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Katherine Zoepf from New York, and employees of The New York Times from Beirut and Damascus, Syria.

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