Saturday, May 21, 2011

Syrian Crackdown Inspires more Protests

Syrian Protesters Defy Crackdown and Gain Momentum

By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
May 20, 2011

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Thousands of Syrians took to the streets in virtually every region of the country on Friday in what appeared to be a sign of new momentum and a potentially dangerous turn in the nine-week uprising. Activists said security forces killed at least 26 people and wounded hundreds.

The resilience of the protests seemed to surprise even the activists themselves. The message delivered at many of the demonstrations, from Damascus, the capital, to the distant east to towns that had been the target of ferocious repression, was that the killing of hundreds and detention of thousands would not stifle opposition to four decades of authoritarian rule.

“No dialogue with tanks and soldiers,” went one slogan.

There were ominous signs, too, of communal strife and outbreaks of violence that are testing a government that has built its legitimacy on the promise of stability. The unrest has exacerbated sectarian tensions in a country with a Sunni Muslim majority and a mosaic of ethnic and religious minorities: Christians, Kurds and Alawites and other heterodox Muslim sects.

Some of the worst unrest has erupted along the Sunni-Alawite fault lines in the cities of Baniyas, Latakia and Homs, and there are reports, though unconfirmed, of assassinations of security personnel and sectarian bloodletting.

To minorities, the middle class and the business elite, the government has warned that it is “us or chaos.” But, an analyst based in Damascus argued, repression may be intensifying instability.

“If you can’t restore stability, then it becomes ‘us and chaos,’ ” said the analyst, who asked not to be identified given the danger of the situation.

This week the Obama administration ratcheted up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, whom American officials had described as recently as March as a reformer. The administration imposed sanctions on him and six other senior officials, and European officials have warned that they may impose more next week. In Mr. Obama’s address on Thursday, he used some of his harshest language yet about the crackdown, saying that Mr. Assad had a choice. “He can lead that transition, or get out of the way,” Mr. Obama said.

By all accounts, the government signaled its intention to persist with the crackdown, even as it tentatively offered to talk with some opposition figures. It blamed armed gangs for the violence on Friday, and activists said it had deployed the military against yet another city, Ma’arrat an Nu’man, and carried out another campaign of arrests in Baniyas.

Across the country, there were signs of disorder in the response of the notoriously unaccountable security forces. While some troops used water cannons and fired in the air, others shot at protesters in places like Homs, the city in central Syria that is emerging as a locus of the challenge to Mr. Assad’s authority, and Ma’arrat an Nu’man, a town to the north that, like Homs, is perched in a region of Sunni Muslims and minority Alawites.

In a town on the border with Iraq, residents said protesters burned a municipal building and stormed a jail, freeing detainees. In the most restive neighborhood of Homs, activists said they raised a flag predating the Assad family’s rule. Despite a military assault on Baniyas, along the Mediterranean coast, thousands returned to the streets there, in a sign that once the tanks were withdrawn, crowds would find a way to organize more protests.

Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group, said he had interviewed young men tortured just days ago. One of them, who had his fingernails pulled out, had taken a lead in the protests on Friday in Baniyas.

“They can’t make people afraid anymore,” he said. “This is evidence, but they just don’t get it. The crackdown is not working, and it’s becoming personal.”

Syrian officials have maintained that the government has the upper hand, suggesting that they believed the crackdown could eventually bring quiet. Mr. Assad himself said in an interview with a Syrian newspaper this week that the unrest would soon come to an end.

But opposition figures and activists warned that the stalemate between a state bent on repression and protests that remain relatively small but remarkably persistent could prove dangerous, as sectarian tensions grow and reports proliferate of some protesters resorting to arms. Some insisted that time was, in fact, running out.

“The longer this crisis goes on, the longer it takes the government to recognize the legitimacy of the protesters and their demands, the bigger the gap between the two will become,” said Louay Hussein, an opposition figure who has met with government officials. “What the street would have accepted yesterday, it won’t accept tomorrow.”

“I fear all scenarios because the street governs reality,” he added.

Just months ago, Mr. Assad was a relatively popular figure in a country where stories often circulated of his common touch, about how he drove his own car or frequented popular restaurants with his family. In recent weeks, though, a deep current of anger has emerged that is directed at Mr. Assad. And analysts say that a leadership that once drew its members from the countryside and saw one of its constituencies as the poor and disenfranchised now suffers from the myopia of living in Damascus and Aleppo, the two largest cities.

Perhaps unwittingly, the crackdown may serve as a force for greater militancy in the countryside, which the government, with few resources, has neglected.

“The regime is a factor of radicalization in the street,” the Damascus-based analyst said. “It’s not the state stepping in to restore order. The regime’s response has been disorderly, chaotic and illegal, and the security forces are running havoc.”

Throughout the uprising, a crucial question asked even by Syria’s allies — namely Turkey — is whether Mr. Assad is unwilling or unable to carry out reforms. American officials remain divided over the question, and the protests seem to be reshaping a landscape in which protesters are becoming both bolder and more adamant in their demands.

“Even until today, Assad can lead a real reform process, but day by day his opportunities are becoming less,” said a human rights advocate in Damascus who asked not to be named. “The more they kill and the more pro-democracy protesters they arrest will make Syrians go to the end — the change of the regime, not change in the regime.”

That sentiment was echoed by some activists. They scoffed at the tentative dialogue with opposition figures who readily admitted that they did not represent the protesters.

“The regime wants to bring light to the dialogue to put an end to the demonstrations in the streets,” said Anas, a 28-year-old activist on the outskirts of Damascus. “Then the two sides will spend five years in dialogue sessions.”

Hwaida Saad and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Beirut, and an employee of The Times from Damascus, Syria.

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