x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Activists on alert as Syrian tanks assemble outside Hama

'Syria's Benghazi' braced for action as security forces arrive outside town that staged country's largest anti-regime protests in decades, their intent as yet unclear

Mohammed Habash, a Syrian politician, speaks to journalists during a rare government-sanctioned meeting in Damascus yesterday. The attenders urged the government to undertake political reforms. Bassem Tellawi / AP Photo
Mohammed Habash, a Syrian politician, speaks to journalists during a rare government-sanctioned meeting in Damascus yesterday. The attenders urged the government to undertake political reforms. Bassem Tellawi / AP Photo

DAMASCUS // Tanks arrived on the outskirts of Hama yesterday according to residents and opposition activists, two days after the city staged the largest anti-regime protest in Syria for decades.

Security forces also made a series of arrests of suspected dissidents in Hama's suburbs, activists said, fuelling alarm the authorities were planning to bring the city to heel.

Between 200,000 and 500,000 people took part in Friday's peaceful demonstration, in the absence of security forces, which were pulled out of the urban centre last week. Rather than mollifying activists, that withdrawal opened up more space for the number of dissidents to swell.

The vast scale of the protest appears to have taken the authorities by surprise, with some opposition activists even claiming the central Syrian city had now been "liberated" from government hands. "Hama is Syria's Benghazi," said one protest supporter in Damascus, referring to the rebel Libyan city that broke away from Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's control.

Previously, on June 3, thousands of protesters in Hama had been met by armed security personnel who opened fire using live ammunition, killing more than 60 people in a matter of hours, according to human rights groups. It was in an effort to defuse the subsequent tensions that security forces were withdrawn, in an agreement between local community leaders and the authorities.

However, in a sign that officials believe things have now gone too far, immediately after Friday's mass protest President Bashar Al Assad sacked his hand-picked provincial governor, who had been in his post only since February. No reason was given for that decision, but an independent Syrian analyst said the timing meant it was because the official had failed to rein in Hama's protesters.

"They've already tried a security crackdown in the city and that didn't stop the protests, nor did pulling the security back, so it's hard to see what other option the authorities now have," the analyst said. "They might find the only way left open for them is to make the kind of real reforms people have been calling for."

There is uncertainty over what will happen next, as the authorities' use of force in protest hot spots has been inconsistent. Public dissent has prompted harsh security measures in some areas of the country; elsewhere demonstrations have taken place without incident."Leading government officials are in Hama trying to come up with some kind of solution to this situation," said one Syrian activist yesterday. "I think they are trying to make some arrangements to deal with it peacefully but the tanks are there on the outside of the city and we cannot tell what is going to happen."

One Syrian analyst said the armoured vehicles were en route to the northern province of Idleb, where the military has been carrying out operations in the area bordering Turkey, and were not intended for use in Hama.

Elsewhere in Syria, efforts to find a political solution to the almost four-month-old crisis faltered, with a government-backed conference in Damascus effectively collapsing within hours of opening.

Billed as the National Initiative for the Future of Syria, the meeting was intended to bring together political centrists, attempting to chart what they called a "third way" between the regime and the protesters. Most of those involved were former MPs or officials, with strong ties to the authorities, but some, including Mohammed Habbash and Hussein Amash, have won respect for taking independent stances and calling for sweeping political reforms.

However, the gathering quickly descended into chaotic infighting, complete with scuffles in the lobby of the Semiramis hotel, as some delegates came out in support of protesters' demands while others clung to the government line and pledged fidelity to the army.

Two documents were circulated, each claiming to represent the conference. One called for an end to the security crackdown, freedom for political prisoners and for the authorities to set a 12-month timetable for transitioning to democracy, while the second document was pro-military and pro-government.

Hardliners appeared to win the day, with moderates leaving early and a Syrian flag showing the face of President Assad raised behind the delegates who remained.

A political analyst who attended as an observer said: "The collapse of the conference shows how little room for compromise there is. The regime wanted to use this as a platform for winning over the silent majority in the country but in the end the mentality of regime supporters means they cannot cope with hearing alternative views expressed.

"If this was a test for the 'third way' it proved that things have gone beyond that," he said. "Only one side can win, the protesters or those in the regime who don't want anything to change, there are no in-betweens."

International pressure on Syria over its crackdown on protesters also increased yesterday, with Switzerland announcing it has blocked assets worth US$31.8 million (Dh116.8m) linked to the Syrian regime.

Switzerland imposed economic sanctions and travel bans on 23 leading members of the Syrian regime in May, joining the US and EU in taking such measures.