x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Damascus struggles to maintain control

Growing concerns about heightened sectarian tensions as anti-government protests escalate.

DAMASCUS // An unprecedented political crisis in Syria appeared to be slipping further out of control yesterday, with renewed clashes between protesters and government forces, and growing concern about heightened sectarian tensions.

With anti-government demonstrations escalating and expanding across the country, the situation is now fast-moving and confused, with the government apparently struggling to react to developments.

In the capital Damascus, speculation mounted that Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, facing the sternest test of his leadership since inheriting power from his father, Hafez al Assad, 11 years ago, would soon announce significant reforms, of the kind protesters have been demanding.

But, rumours that he is planning a televised address to the nation, or that an emergency session of parliament will take place today, to push through major political reforms, or that the entire government will be sacked, remained just talk, with no announcement as of last night that any such steps would take place.

Central to protesters' demands has been the scrapping of draconian emergency laws that have been in place for almost five decades, and which give myriad secret police agencies the power to act with virtual impunity. It is under these laws that political dissenters are arrested and jailed.

The government said on Thursday that it would "study" bringing martial law to an end, a promise that Syrians have heard before, and one that did nothing to prevent the widespread demonstrations on Friday, in which more civilians were shot and killed.

Crucially, protests have now expanded far beyond Deraa, a city 100 kilometres south of Damascus that has become the epicentre of an uprising. Many of Syria's major cities have now reported some kind of anti-government protests, even if only small in scale.

Centred on Deraa, some of these protests have now passed beyond relatively simple calls for reform under Mr al Assad's rule, and have, instead, moved onto open calls for regime change.

Yesterday, stunned Syrians watched the video footage recorded by protesters and aired by satellite news networks - although not state run television, which is heavily censored - showing a statue of former president Hafez al Assad being demolished in Deraa. Also caught on tape were scenes of posters of the ruling family being torn up and hit with shoes in Homs.

"I never thought I would see such things in my lifetime," said one Syrian as the images flashed across the screen. "This was always unthinkable, but now it is happening."

Until now, Mr al Assad has not directly addressed the country, but there appears to be a deepening sense among ordinary Syrians, who have neither joined pro- nor anti-government street demonstrations, that they would like to see a decisive personal intervention, made publicly and soon, to prevent the crisis from deepening further.

"The situation is getting worse and something needs to be done soon. We need to hear a clear plan that will solve this before it gets any further out of hand," said one Syrian analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "At the moment, we just don't know what's going on, only that it is getting more dangerous."

The International Crisis Group, a leading think-tank, has said that President al Assad is at crossroads.

"Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership," it said in a report released on Friday.

"There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change. The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end."

The government yesterday released 260 political prisoners, according to human-rights lawyers, going someway to meeting another of the protesters' demands - that all prisoners of conscience be released.

But, with scores of new arrests taking place nationwide each day as security forces clamp down on public dissent, detention centres are filling up, not emptying.

In the port city of Latakia yesterday, demonstrators set fire to the office of the ruling Baath party, and two people were shot and killed apparently by snipers, according to activists. Those claims could not be independently confirmed.