x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

At least 11 killed as defiant Syria continues crackdown

Death toll continues to rise in Syria with fatalities recorded in cities that continue to defy military lockdown.

Damascus //At least 11 protesters were killed by security services yesterday human-rights groups said, as demonstrators continued their defiance of a military lockdown and the Syrian authorities continued to defy growing international pressure.

Activists acknowledged the numbers involved in protests was significantly down on previous weeks, as security forces extended operations designed to suppress a five-month-old uprising, making further arrests and sealing off restive neighbourhoods.

One of the largest demonstrations, involving thousands of people, took place in Deraa, on the Jordanian border, the cradle of the revolt. The army had been sent to the city in April to stamp out dissent but, since withdrawing, protests have resumed.

Similarly Douma, a suburb of Damascus that had ostensibly been pacified by government forces, returned to centre stage after weeks of apparent silence. Five people were killed there, according to rights monitors, including a 16-year-old girl.

By yesterday evening, other fatalities were recorded by activists in Deir Ezzor, Homs, Hama and Idleb - all targeted in recent weeks by military operations, which failed to prevent protests - as well as Saqba, another Damascus suburb where security forces staged dawn raids, according to residents.

Death tolls have typical risen throughout the night since the start of Ramadan, as protests continued until the early hours.

Another two killings took place yesterday at a protest in Aleppo, activists said. As Syria's second largest city and a key commercial centre, it is seen as a critical barometer of the opposition's progress and the strength of president Bashar Al Assad's regime.

While some activists said the fatalities would add to pressure in Aleppo, an independent analyst in Damascus said there was little indication of the regime wobbling, despite a week of intensified international condemnation, including from Arab states.

"There is much speculation about the weakness of the regime but the evidence on the ground is that they are strong and have still not fully flexed their muscles," he said. "There is no signal that they might crack soon, no indication they will do anything other than hold on tight for a long while, whatever it costs them or the country."

At the same time, the analyst said protesters had also dug in firmly, and appeared ready to pay any price to topple the regime.

"Everyone still in the street at this point, after all the arrests and killing, is brave or desperate beyond fear and treason," he said. "We have two sides that will not surrender."

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called for an tightening of economic sanctions, calling on the European Union, Russia and India to take steps that would further isolate the regime and damage its ability to stay afloat.

"We urge those countries still buying Syrian oil and gas, those countries still sending Assad weapons, those countries whose political and economic support give him comfort in his brutality, to get on the right side of history," she told reporters at a news conference yesterday in Norway.

The EU said it will consider extending targeted sanctions in the coming week but there is no indication Russia, Syria's major arms supplier, or India, a significant investor in Syria, are about to follow suit. Moscow and New Delhi have both given diplomatic cover to Damascus thought the uprising, although their positions have hardened since the start of a Ramadan military offensive that has left more than 200 people dead.

Rights groups now say more than 2,000 Syrians have died at the hands of security services, with the rate of killing accelerating since the start of the Muslim holy month. Before Ramadan, deadly incidents had typically been confined to Friday but, as protests have expanded, killings are now taking place on a daily basis, according to activists.

The Syrian authorities say more than 500 security personnel have been killed by "armed groups". They insist they are fighting a militant Islamic insurgency that must be crushed by force, and that residents of embattled cities have called for troops to be sent in to provide security against terrorists.

At the same time, Mr Al Assad has promised political reforms, issuing new election and multi-party laws which his officials say will turn Syria into a model democracy by the end of the year. Critics dismiss that claims as a ploy to buy time while crushing a peaceful popular uprising.

psands@thenational.ae