Syrian president offers olive branch to protesters as violence escalates

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The Independent Online

The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is expected to announce reforms today including the end of the 50-year-old state of emergency, to try to defuse protests as thousands of people continue to confront troops.

President Assad needs to convince Syrians that he is sincere in promising to dismantle the arbitrary powers of the ruling Ba'ath party, the security services and his own family. In the week since the demonstrations first started, the government has spoken of reforms, but has allowed its forces to open fire repeatedly on marches and rallies, killing at least 61 people. The crisis in Syria affects the politics of all the Middle East since the country is the predominant power in Lebanon, Iran's most important foreign ally, a significant player in Iraq, and a backer of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

The violence of the security forces in the southern city of Deraa, which turned initial calls for reform into demands for a change of regime, have so far failed to intimidate local people.

Witnesses, quoted by news agencies, said that 4,000 demonstrators refused to disperse as security forces fired tear gas at them and shot live rounds into the air. Tanks and army vehicles surrounded the city, while as many as 1,200 people held a sit-in the al-Omari mosque, the focus of the protests in Deraa.

Demonstrators chanted "We want dignity and freedom" and "No to emergency laws", as soldiers and security forces occupied the ground in front of the mosque and pointed their weapons at any gathering of civilians. Snipers took up positions on tops of buildings.

In Syria, there is always a danger that any attack on the regime will take a sectarian form since the Assad family and many of the ruling elite are members of the Shia/Alawite sect, though they make up only 12 per cent of the population in this Sunni-majority nation.

The biggest revolt against the Ba'athist regime was by the Sunni fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood from 1976 to 1982, which led to as many as 10,000 people being killed by the security forces during an uprising in the city of Hama.

President Assad, who is seen as retaining some credibility, has so far remained silent. Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa said the President will give an important speech in the next two days that would "assure the people".

His aides have suggested that he would end emergency laws imposed since 1963, free thousands of political prisoners, allow freedom of expression in the media, and curb the powers of the security services. Even then, people will doubt if he and the ruling elite are really going to give up so much power.

Human Rights Watch called on the government "to hold to account those responsible for any unlawful shooting on demonstrators".

"The government should understand that these demonstrations won't end until it stops shooting at protesters and begins to change its repressive laws and practices," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East director.

Demonstrations spread last Friday to other Syrian cities, though there were also many pro-regime rallies.

There was fighting in the port of Latakia, a Sunni-majority city in a province in which most people belong to the Alawite sect. In outlying areas, armed residents manned their own checkpoints as the government claimed that foreign gunmen roamed the backstreets. Troops in the centre were deployed to guard the Ba'ath party headquarters and the Central Bank.

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