x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syria crackdown continues despite international condemnation

Syrian troops seal off roads and access to water and electricity in Deraa, where a heavy army presence has been deployed, as the regime tries to end protests.

BEIRUT // The Syrian army tightened control over several towns yesterday, including Deraa where anti-government protests started last month, as the government faced mounting international pressure to end the violence.

Troops sealed off roads, and access to water and electricity has been cut off in Deraa, where a heavy army presence has been deployed, according to human rights activists in Syria and Beirut. Tanks and troops were also reported around the Damascus suburb of Douma and the coastal town of Baniyas, where protests have taken place.

Activists say more than 35 people have been killed by government forces in Deraa since Monday, although the reports could not be independently verified. According to a Syrian human-rights organisation, 453 civilians have been killed since the outbreak of demonstrations six weeks ago. Rami Abdel Rahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said most had been killed in Homs and Deraa.

Internationally, condemnation of the Syrian government's reaction to the protests is growing. The European Union said yesterday that all options are on the table for punitive measures against Damascus, while the United States is said to be considering further targeted sanctions.

On Tuesday, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, described the violence as "abhorrent and deplorable" and was joined by the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who condemned the use of tanks and live fire on crowds of protesters.

The UN Security Council was due to meet on Syria late yesterday, with European members pushing for the 15-nation body to adopt a statement condemning attacks on protesters, calling for restraint and urging Syrian officials to investigate the deaths. The UN Human Rights Council said it would hold a special session on Syria tomorrow after a request filed by Washington, and 10 European states, as well as Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Senegal and Zambia. Human Rights Watch yesterday urged Arab states to join international efforts to establish an inquiry into the government's deadly use of force.

Although Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, last week lifted the country's 48-year state of emergency in an apparent attempt to diffuse the crisis, the bloodshed has continued.

Just across the border, a small group of Syrian online activists scattered across Beirut have been tirelessly working to get word out about what is happening inside their country.

Since pro-reform protests spread to Syria last month, they have been in constant contact through their laptops with colleagues and friends on the ground in Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere, gathering information on the latest demonstrations and the government's violent response.

The activists in Beirut have been helping to document the number of dead, wounded and missing and getting the information out by posting footage on YouTube and updating Facebook and Twitter.

Most of the activists currently in hiding in Beirut have kept out of the spotlight, preferring to remain anonymous, fearing Syrian authorities will be able to reach them in Lebanon.

But Rami Nakhle recently stepped out from behind his online alias.

"We need to cover what's going on and get the information out there," said the 28-year-old online activist. "During a revolution, you can change people more than you can in decades. This is our moment and the street is giving us hope and encouragement."

Since the insurrection sweeping the Arab world reached Syria, there has been a swell in online activism, according to Mr Nakhle, with thousands taking to social media to voice their desire for change and condemn the use of violence.

"Suddenly, we thought 'Oh, gosh', the street is moving in Syria and we felt that our people were waking up," he said. "That was a real sign, when people were demanding for freedom and saying that we won't be humiliated anymore."

For Mr Nakhle, part of the problem in his country has been the apparent political ambivalence of young people, including himself.

"It was like I was in the dark. I didn't know that people were in jail for expressing their opinions," he said. "But on the internet, I found out about all of these things. I started to think also about what we could do to bring political reform."

Since arriving to Lebanon in January, Mr Nakhle has been unable to return to Syria. He says he was smuggled out of the country, believing the authorities were on the verge of arresting him for his online activism and criticism of the government.

For the last few weeks, the living room of his apartment in Beirut has become his command centre. On his coffee table, a metal teapot was perched precariously on a camping stove, as he prepared another cup of Nescafe.

The television in the corner of the rooms was switched to Al Jazeera Arabic, when a story on Mr Nakhle was mentioned by the newscaster. A laptop - his lifeline to his colleagues in Syria and elsewhere - was closed in a rare, idle moment, as Mr Nakhle fielded calls.

"Before Tunisia, we always said that it would be 20 years of work. We would say that the revolution would not be tomorrow," he said. "Then, when Ben Ali [Tunisia's former president, Zein al Abidine Ben Ali] left, we thought, 'that's amazing, they did it'. When it spread to Egypt, I thought 'Oh my God'. Then the Syrian people started to question the similarities between Syria and Egypt. It opened their eyes and they started to think, 'This is not our destiny, it's our choice'."

Still, opposition activists were not convinced that the thousands of people who started to crop up online would actually materialise on the streets. But, as protests grew, spreading across the country and dozens of demonstrators became hundreds and then thousands, Mr Nakhle said it felt like he was "winning the lottery".

"I just wished that I was there too," he said. "The Syrian people have lost a lot of blood and paid a high price. They are loyal to their blood and they will not go back."

Another online activist who is currently in Beirut and did not wish to be named fled Damascus last month, after being tipped off that he would be arrested. He remains concerned for his safety in Lebanon.

"It's not secure for me here either," said the activist, who is in his thirties. "We are just trying to deliver the word. If I could get back there, I would. Without the activists inside Syria, we are nothing."

zconstantine@thenational.ae

With additional reporting by James Reinl in New York, the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse