x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Syria suffers 'another bloody Friday'

As anti-government demonstrations entered a third month in Syria, the number of protesters grew in strength and rallies spread across the country.

DAMASCUS // Anti-government demonstrations turned deadly again yesterday in Syria, with at least 34 people killed by security services, according to human rights activists.

Previous Fridays had seemed to weaken the protest movement, with thousands of dissidents and residents of restive neighbourhoods in detention, a communications blackout and military units deployed in strength to prevent public gatherings.

Yesterday, however, as anti-government demonstrations entered a third month, the number of protesters on the streets grew in strength, activists and analysts said, with rallies also spreading across the country.

A ring of suburbs around the capital all staged demonstrations yesterday - the first time they have done so on the same day,

footage posted online by activists showed. There were also rallies in the central cities of Homs and Hama, while others took place in the north, east, south and west of the country.

Compared to last Friday, when six demonstrators were killed - the lowest number of fatalities in weeks - by early yesterday evening at least 34 demonstrators, including a child, had died in shootings by the security services. The deaths occurred mostlyly in Homs

and Maaret al-Numan, a city midway between Hama and Aleppo, human rights activists said.

Two people were also killed in the region around Deraa, the focal point of the uprising that has gripped Syria since March 15. Syrian officials had said that army units were being pulled out of the area last week.

Human rights groups believe between 700 and 1,000 protesters have been killed since the uprising began, although those numbers cannot be independently confirmed and are disputed by the Syrian government.

Yesterday's shootings - on a day described as "another bloody Friday" by one pro-democracy dissident - and the scale of protests posed serious questions over the effectiveness of government policy to quash dissent through a mixture of force and a promise of negotiations.

Hopes that such a "national dialogue", as authorities have called the proposed talks, will actually happen now seem increasingly unrealistic, a civil rights campaigner said. The source added that room for compromise between the government and protesters in shrinking with each passing week.

"More and more people seem to be approaching the point where they feel they have nothing to lose by demonstrating," he said, on condition of anonymity. "Every week the protesters feel the government will not make reforms and will not make the decisions necessary to calm the situation down and end it peacefully."

In some of areas, supposedly brought back into line through a massive deployment of security units, protesters once again took to the more lightly policed streets.

This was the case in a number of working-class suburbs to the south of Damascus where protests resumed after weeks of quiet. Protesters' demands in these areas have hardened from requests for political reforms and greater freedoms. Marching dissidents were heard yesterday chanting, "The people want to topple the regime." Others simply shouted, "Leave".

"The security thought they had many of these places under control but as soon as they leave a neighbourhood, the protesters return, and they seem to be even more active than before," said Abdul Karim Rehawi, head of the Syrian Human Rights League.

Such resilience underlines the need to seek a political, not military, solution to the crisis, Mr Rehawi said, adding that the government should immediately begin a process of open political discussion involving all sectors of society.

"So far there have been consultations and meetings with some opposition figures but much more than that is now needed, and

urgently," he said. "We have the same requests as we had weeks ago: release political prisoners, stop shooting, allow peaceful

demonstrations, and have real dialogue."

Syrian officials have been adamant that the crisis is winding down, with pro-government figures dismissing reports of

demonstrations as lies manufactured by their enemies and spread by malevolent media networks.

State media did, however, acknowledge a dozen rallies yesterday.

"Gatherings of scores and hundreds of citizens took place in a number of provinces after Friday prayers, chanting for freedom, mostly dispersing after a short time," the official news agency SANA reported.

It also reported that security force personnel and civilians had been shot at by "armed groups' in Homs and near Idleb. Officials have consistently blamed the killings, including the death of more than 120 security service personnel, on Islamic terrorists with support from foreign countries.

That message is certainly believed by at least some Syrians, who talk of a plot by the country's enemies to weaken Damascus. There are also significant fears, mainly among minority groups, that a sectarian civil war will break out if the largely secular government loses control. Syria is made of different sectarian and ethnic groups, with a Sunni Muslim majority.

Most Syrians are not taking part in demonstrations, and President Bashar al Assad, 11 years into his rule, still appears to enjoy a wide base of popular support.

That popularity, while real and widespread, is dwindling as the crisis continues, according to one Syrian political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The silent majority is still quiet which is taken as a sign of support for the president," he said. "But I see indications that [support] is slowly starting to shift as doubts are settling it.

"It's still not too late for him to keep that majority on his side but it will take decisive political reforms. Things cannot just be allowed to drift as they are. At the moment, there is no actual policy; it's just crisis management that is failing to managing the crisis."