x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Anti-Assad protests 'accelerating' say Syrian activists

Activists in Syria say that while the regime of Bashar al Assad is at full stretch and bereft of ideas, the protesters are constantly evolving into an irresistible force for change.

Anti-government protests, once isolated and largely spontaneous, are now evolving into a more coherent, organised movement, activists in Syria say.

Galvanised by a violent crackdown and street-tested in more than two months of confrontation, protesters believe they have proven their resilience and steadily grown in both numbers and influence.

Activists describe new leaders emerging from their ranks, co-ordinated political strategies developing and increasing co-operation among demonstrators in different parts of the country. All indications, they say, that protests are maturing and will become capable of effecting genuine political change in Syria.

"This is something real now," said one influential activist. "It is becoming stronger and more organised. We've entered the third month and it has expanded geographically and is developing its own identity. We're not following an Egyptian model or a Tunisian model any more. A Syrian model has emerged."

That model involves the increasing prevalence of local co-ordination committees to organise protests, he said, usually with a wide base of support in their immediate area that extends beyond those who take part in demonstrations.

"That is not a small thing. Political life has been strangled in Syria for decades, but now the people are forming real organisations, grassroots organisations, with no money, no sponsor, no foreign interference," he said.

"It has started slowly but is accelerating. This is very important."

The activist described increased support that crossed divides of religion, sect and economic status. "The most influential leaders of protests in Damascus are from minority groups. They have not declared themselves publicly yet, but they are emerging."

He also said a "strategy" would be released by Syrian-based activists "soon" that sketches out their vision for a peaceful transition from an autocratic to democratic system of governance. He gave no further details other than it would include a reference to "no revenge" as part of the shift.

As many as 10,000 suspected dissidents have been arrested since the first protests in March, according to human-rights monitors, with more than 1,000 demonstrators killed by security forces. The government refutes those figures and blames "armed gangs" for any deaths.

Some people in Syria deny the protests are actually taking place - a consequence of a powerful state security apparatus, media restrictions and decades of one-party rule that prohibits the existence of any organised opposition or public dissent.

Often seen in blurry video footage filmed with mobile phones, the protesters have a mysterious air to those not involved in demonstrations. To date, they have produced no agreed-upon political manifesto, beyond demands for "freedom", and there is no obvious opposition leadership, certainly nothing on a national scale offering a clear alternative to the current government.

Demonstrations have often had local triggers, which appear to reflect specific grievances as much as a desire for broader political change, although protests and a violent official response in Deraa, 100 kilometres south of Damascus, have acted as a focal point for activists elsewhere.

Exiled opposition figures are to hold a three-day conference in Turkey beginning today but it remains unclear to what extent any of the groups taking part can claim to represent protesters inside Syria, who will not be attending the meeting.

"I can only speak for myself. I can't even claim to represent my family on anything," said another Syrian political dissident in Damascus, referring to the various divisions that exist among those pushing for sweeping political change.

Nonetheless, activists and their supporters said demonstrators were creating on-the-ground networks, branching out of their home neighbourhoods and helping establish protests in other areas. That came partly in response to an increasing security presence in hotspots, but it has had the effect of spreading protest experience and expertise, and allowing anti-government dissent to coalesce.

"We've seen it more and more in Damascus," said one protest supporter with close connections to various districts in the capital. "If one place gets shut down by the security, the people go from there and demonstrate somewhere else."

In so doing, he said, they helped propagate the uprising and unify protesters, giving areas with a cautious but restive population the know-how and confidence to take to the streets.

The official Syrian government interpretation of events is that protests have peaked and are on the wane, and that - subject to some promised political reforms and military mopping up operations, targeting Islamic terrorists - normality is returning.

Protesters, however, point to a significant spread of anti-government demonstrations. In March, rallies were held in Deraa, Banis and a few areas on the outskirts of Damascus. By comparison, on Friday there were anti-government demonstrations in 91 places throughout the country, according to activists, despite thousands being jailed and the threat of violence by the security forces.

Government loyalists vociferously attack satellite news channels, accusing them of exaggerating the scale of public dissent in Syria. Protesters say the mainstream media reports only rallies at which video footage is both taken and quickly uploaded on to the internet, a difficult task in the face of communications blackouts and a security clampdown.

The influential activist who spoke of "emerging leaders" accepted that the protest movement was not yet strong enough to end Syria's autocracy and usher in a democratic era. He was optimistic, however, about its potential to do so, suggesting it might reach a "critical mass" in six months' time.

"We are evolving while the authorities are fossilised and paralysed," he said. "They are already running at full capacity in terms of money, ideas and manpower to try and deal with this, and they are failing, while the opposition is getting stronger all the time."