x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Syrians continue to defy regime

Protesters were not put off by government measures that included tanks, soldiers and mass arrests and continued their string of Friday protests across the country.

DAMASCUS // The use of soldiers, tanks, mass arrests, a communications blackout and a ban on protests, failed to prevent thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets across Syria yesterday, to press their demand for political reform.

Despite the detention of 8,000 suspected dissidents in recent weeks, according to activists, and the deployment of military units across six different provinces, anti-government protesters still managed to stage rallies, including at least three in neighbourhoods inside Damascus.

One of the largest protests took place in the central city of Hama, activists said, with thousands marching in defiance of tanks and infantry, which were deployed to the area earlier this week.

Hama has a special symbolism in Syria's modern history, after former president Hafez al Assad used military force to smash a violent Islamic uprising there in 1982, firing artillery into the city's old quarter and killing thousands of people.

His son, current president Bashar al Assad, has also used the army to try and put down an anti-government revolt that, his government claims, is similarly the work of armed Islamic extremists seeking to terrorise a frightened populace.

That narrative is disputed by protesters from across Syria's political and religious spectrum who insist their calls for change are peaceful. The protesters say they want increased political freedoms, an end to rampant corruption and a halt to abuse by the security apparatus - not the establishment of a hard-line Islamic state.

They continued to push those demands yesterday, with an assurance from a leading presidential adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, that security forces would not use live ammunition against civilian demonstrators as they have done with deadly effect in previous weeks.

A similar assurance was given before, but the killing continued. By yesterday night, civil rights activists reported up to six people had been shot and killed, including two in Homs, adding to a civilian death toll that human rights groups say has exceeded 550 since demonstrations began two months ago.

The authorities say that more than 100 soldiers and 20 police officers have been killed in the violence, with scores more injured. The casualty rate is widely seen in Syria as proof that not all anti-government forces are refraining from violence.

Both sides dispute the death toll and who bears responsibility for the killings. No independent evaluation has been possible. A United Nations humanitarian mission, expected to take place earlier in the week, was delayed because of problems over getting access to violence-hit areas from the Syrian government.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights yesterday acknowledged reports that up to 850 civilians had been killed since mid-March. Describing the situation as "extremely worrying", Rupert Colville, a UN spokesman said that, while unverified, he did not "believe the numbers are unlikely".

Syrian officials have been saying the peak of crisis is now behind them. Their optimism stems from military operations in various towns and villages, including the city of Deraa, the epicentre of the uprising, 100 kilometres south of Damascus.

Nonetheless, given the strict security measures in place to prevent public shows of dissent, activists were claiming a victory yesterday.

"It's not a matter of numbers, it's not just a case of saying 200 here or 2,000 there," said one supporter of the demonstrations. "In Syria, if you have one man in the street protesting, that's worth a thousand in another country.

"Most, if not all of the people who were out on the streets have lived their whole lives under emergency laws and have known only life in a police state. The fact they are still going out shows the government has not finished this."

Martial law, put in place almost 50 years ago, was lifted last month in a concession by a government faced with growing demands for wider civil liberties. That move did nothing to deter protesters, however, and has had little effect at demonstration sites where, activists say, security services continue to behave with impunity.

On state television yesterday, information minister Adnan Hasan Mahmoud said army units had begun withdrawing from the coastal city of Banias and had now completely pulled out of Deraa. Those claims were refuted by residents who said soldiers and armoured units were still present in their cities. Mr Mahmoud also said a process of "national dialogue" would take place in coming days, although he gave few details. Ms Shaaban, the presidential adviser, said this week that dialogue had begun with leading political dissidents in what she said was a chance to "move forward …. especially at the political level".

Mr Assad has sought to head-off protests with a mixture of security clampdowns and promises of reform. There are indications of protest fatigue among ordinary Syrians, a majority of whom have not joined in anti-government demonstrations. Many say the president should be given a chance to carry out his promised reform programme, including new elections and media laws.

Critics of the regime, which has been in place for more than 40 years, say it has already had ample time to change and, in fact, is incapable of genuine reform or power sharing.