x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Syria: More violence, strike looms, elections going ahead

With violence on the rise, thousands of dissidents in jail and key urban areas under military lockdown, questions have been raised about how municipal elections can actually be held.

DAMASCUS // At least 14 people, including four children, were killed in protests in Syria yesterday, activists said, ahead of tomorrow's local elections and the opposition's call for a national strike.

Human-rights groups said 10 civilians were killed and another 12 wounded after security forces opened fire on protesters in Homs and the surrounding area. The city, 160km north of Damascus, has become a focal point in the nine-month-old uprising.

Another civilian was fatally shot at a protest in Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, and a 12-year-old girl was killed by "indiscriminate gunfire" in Deraa.

State media reported that gunmen killed an army officer in Homs, and said 10 security personnel and four civilians were wounded, and a young girl killed, in attacks by "armed terrorist" groups in the southern province of Deraa.

Syrian officials also said a series of bombs were defused or detonated in controlled explosions by technicians in Hama and the Damascus suburb of Douma. According to activists, deserting soldiers exchanged fire with security agents in the neighbourhood.

Earlier in the day, the Syrian National Council (SNC) had warned of an impending "massacre" in Homs, saying government troops and pro-regime militia forces were gathering around parts of city, apparently marshalling for a major assault after an attack on Thursday that targeted an oil pipeline near the city.

With violence apparently on the rise, thousands of dissidents in jail and key urban areas under military lockdown, questions have been raised about how municipal elections, scheduled to begin tomorrow, can actually be held. Opposition groups have called for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience and a general strike to start on the same day.

National holidays have been called to allow people to vote, and requirements for prior registration have been waived, in an effort to boost participation. The authorities - keen to stress they remain firmly in control of the country - seem set on pressing ahead with the ballot.

But anecdotally there was almost no interest in the polls, which will select local representatives, even among potential candidates themselves. In Damascus the wooden boards hung for campaign posters were largely empty.

"No one is interested in local elections at the best of times and under the circumstances, I can't see many people will bother to vote," said one independent analyst in Damascus. "There is a battle underway for the whole country, a fight for the president's chair. These elections are irrelevant."

Syrian officials have been keen to point out that the municipal ballots would be the first in a series of promised elections, part of what they said was a comprehensive transition to democracy. President Bashar Al Assad has promised a parliamentary vote in February or March with real opposition parties allowed to compete, followed in 2014 by Syria's first open presidential election in more than 50 years.

Mr Al Assad has come under increasing international pressure over his handling of the uprising, in which security forces have killed more than 4,000 people by the most recent United Nations count.

In a rare interview this week, the Syrian president denied a crackdown was underway, dismissed the UN casualty figures as baseless and said he was not responsible for any of the deaths. He blamed foreign-backed insurgents.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, yesterday warned that Ankara would consider intervention if the violence in Syria threatened to spill over the border, saying it had the "responsibility and the authority" to take action.

 

psands@thenational.ae