x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Protesters and allies pile pressure on Syrian leadership

Russia and Turkey join calls for reforms rather than repression.

DAMASCUS // Demonstrators across Syria pressed their demands for freedom yesterday, as international pressure grew on Damascus to end a crackdown on dissidents and begin political reforms.

Russia, a major ally of Damascus, yesterday issued its first public criticism of Syria since the anti-government uprising began more than two months ago. Speaking at the G8 summit in France, the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al Assad, now had to deliver on promises of political change.

"President Assad should switch from words to actions and conduct real democratic reforms," Mr Medvedev said.

He did, however, rule out Moscow following the United States and European Union in imposing economic sanctions, saying they were "not the best method".

A communique approved by all G8 members, including Japan, another country with which Damascus has long had a cordial relationship, said the nations were "appalled by the deaths of many peaceful protesters" as well as "repeated and serious violations of human rights" by government forces.

More than 1,000 civilians have been killed by security forces since March 18, according to human-rights monitors.

The G8 - a group of some of the world's most powerful economies - also threatened that "further measures" would be taken if Syria did not embark on serious reforms.

Another major Syrian ally, Turkey, also continued its efforts to shift Damascus from a policy of suppression.

The Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan telephoned Mr Assad yesterday and "emphasised again the importance of reform", according to a Turkish official quoted by the AFP news agency.

As the diplomatic manoeuvring intensified, so did street-level demonstrations inside Syria. Crowds gathered in defiance of a massive security crackdown that has included army units deployed to urban centres and the arrests of thousands of suspected protesters.

At least eight protesters were killed and dozens more wounded yesterday when security forces opened fire on demonstrators with live ammunition, according to civil rights activists.

Some of those fatalities occurred in the Damascus suburb of Katana, an area with a large Christian population, activists said.

For the second week running, significant demonstrations took place simultaneously in districts surrounding the capital - as well as inside Damascus proper - including Ruken al Deen, Barzeh, Qaborn, Midan, Hajar Aswad, Qadam and Daraya. Videos posted online by dissidents showed large rallies, with people chanting "Go!", a slogan used by Egyptian protesters in their recent uprising against the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Activists have been calling for sweeping political changes, including an end to one-party rule, the dismantling of security services, and the release of political prisoners.

The Syrian government has repeatedly promised reforms. Although it officially ended 48 years of martial law in response to demands, the measure has had no real effect on the ground.

Demonstrations also took place yesterday in Homs, Latakia, Hama, Zabadai and Deraa. Shooting by security units was reported in many of these areas. Claims and reports of civilian deaths could not be independently confirmed.

Protests in the eastern Jazeera region, home to powerful Arab tribes, also gathered momentum after weeks in which tension has escalated, according to residents.

In Deir Ezzor and the town of Abu Kamal, on the Syria-Iraq border, crowds demanding "freedom" were fired upon, according to activists, and at least five wounded.

"Each week the Syrian regime hopes this uprising is finished, and each week it carries on," said a protest supporter, on condition of anonymity. "We hope they are clever enough to learn that the security solution has not worked and that there must be heavy political reforms. There must be, that is the only good way out of this."

Syria's state run media issued its own version of yesterday's events, saying that security personnel had been killed and wounded after demonstrators attacked them in Deir Ezzor and in Zabadani, to the west of the capital.

It also reported seizing of weapons in Raqqa, in Syria's eastern Arab tribal heartland that had been smuggled in from Turkey.

Sana, the official Syrian news agency, reported on the telephone conversation between Mr Erdogan and Mr Assad by claiming the Turkish premier stressed he would stand by Syria. "Both sides reiterated determination to continue the warm and transparent relationship," Sana said.

Close ties between the neighbours have been strained in recent weeks by Ankara's public criticism of Syria's failure to engage in real reform.

Turkey will hold a conference of Syrian opposition figures next week, the second time it will have done so since the uprising began in March.

International pressure on Damascus has been rising steadily, with the US, EU, Canada, Australia and Switzerland all imposing economic sanctions against leading Syrian officials.

Moves are also being made in the UN Security Council aimed at passing a resolution condemning Syria and warning that officials will be punished for any crimes against humanity.

Despite yesterday's remarks, Russia has indicated it will not now support such a resolution, a move analysts say gives Damascus more flexibility.

In addition, the UN's atomic watchdog may refer Syria to the Security Council, after this week issuing a report in which it concluded Damascus had "very likely" been building a secret nuclear reactor, in breach of international conventions. Syria denies the allegations.

The UN has also criticised Damascus for refusing to give a human-rights assessment team access to Deraa, the southern epicentre of the uprising. Tank-backed military units have been used to crush dissent there, in what activists say is a bloody and ongoing security operation.

Syrian authorities insist military forces have been pulled out, having successfully dismantled a foreign-backed Islamic terrorist network, and that there is no need for a UN mission there.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been given limited access to the city. Jakob Kellenberger, the head of the ICRC, this week said it had not been given access to prisoners held in Syrian jails.

Human rights groups say some 8,000 suspected dissidents have been detained in recent security sweeps, in addition to thousands of political prisoners already held in Syria jails.

The Syrian government refutes claims of massive civilian casualties, saying fewer than 100 have been killed, and blaming "armed gangs" for the deaths. It also says more than 120 security personnel have been killed by militants in the uprising.

psands@thenational.ae