Syria gripped by violence
Good Friday became a massacre in Damascus and Easter Monday -- in Daraa, when security forces opened fire on peaceful protesters, reports Bassel Oudat from the Syrian capital
Last Friday was the bloodiest in Syria since the beginning of protests six weeks ago. Some 111 victims were killed with live ammunition fired by security forces and hundreds were injured, according to human rights groups and several observers. Peaceful demonstrators were killed in several Syrian cities as they chanted for freedom and many other political demands.
Despite a ban on demonstrations declared by the Ministry of Interior on 21 April and a new law regulating protests, massive protests swept across 84 Syrian cities, towns and villages on Friday, according to the Syrian National Human Rights Organisation. Some observers estimated the number of protesters at more than half a million people; Daraa and surrounding rural areas witnessed about a quarter of this number of protesters. Meanwhile, security forces came out in unprecedented numbers in Syrian cities and on international and main roads.
The reforms promised by President Bashar Al-Assad did not satisfy demonstrators and protesters, who rejected the newly issued law regulating protests which strapped demonstrations and strikes with stifling regulations. They were unsatisfied with the suspension of the Emergency Law while keeping detentions and interrogations in the hands of security agencies, not the prosecutor general, as practiced in other countries.
Syrian activists from across the spectrum used the Internet to call for protests on Friday and ignored warnings by the authorities to stop protesting. The Ministry of Interior's warning against any protests or strikes "under any pretext" and threats "to firmly apply the law" found no resonance among Syrians.
At noon on Good Friday, protests began in several cities and almost all of them demanded "the overthrow of the regime", which is a chant most demonstrations over the past five weeks had tried to avoid, only raising banners for freedom, dignity, democracy and some political reform.
Security forces, supported by the military, shot live ammunition directly at protesters and did not even use tear gas as a warning, according to demonstrators. In the city of Azraa, near Daraa, 20 people were killed including children and elderly; the same occurred in the governorate of Hems and rural Duma in Damascus, as well as other Syrian cities. Some Syrian human rights groups described events as a crime against humanity.
According to eye witnesses, 111 protesters were killed by the security in a number of Syrian cities, but the Ministry of Interior claimed that only eight were killed by "armed criminal gangs" not by security forces. Official Syrian sources insisted that the demonstrations were limited, and did not occur at all in many areas where the media claimed they occurred. The most humorous statement by official sources was that protesters took to the streets in the capital Damascus "to thank God for rain", not demand freedom.
But the Friday massacre was not the end of the matter. On Saturday, violence by security forces against the masses continued, opening fire at thousands of citizens taking part in the funeral of the victims of the day before. Twelve were killed on that day and their funerals took place on the same day they were killed, raising the number of deaths in less than 24 hours to 123 killed.
And then on Monday, the army entered Daraa using tanks, heavy artillery and heavy fire after cutting off all communications between the city and the outside world, effectively isolating it. Eye witnesses report that many were killed during the raid on Daraa in an attempt to bring the demonstrators under control, and there were reports that 25 army officers and soldiers refused to fire at civilians and turned their guns on security forces.
An official military source said that the army went to Daraa in response to pleas for help by the people who wanted the Armed Forces to intercede and end the killings, destruction and intimidation by "extremist terrorist groups". Razan Zeitouna, a Syrian human rights activist, denied this notion. "It is clear that the Syrian regime has decided to end the revolution for freedom at any price, and regardless of how many martyrs are killed or people injured, arrested or humiliated," Zeitouna said. "We all know that even if these methods succeed in temporarily delaying the Syrians on their road to freedom, they will not prevent them from taking action again soon."
In a snowball effect, Friday after Friday the demonstrations in Syria are gaining momentum and taking place in more places. "The government is gravely mistaken when it uses the presence of infiltrators and Salafis as an excuse to use violence against those who are asking for freedom, especially after several officials -- including the president -- admitted the legitimacy of these demands," former minister and former leading figure in the Syrian ruling Baath Party Marwan Habash told Al-Ahram Weekly. "If protesters are genuine about their peaceful demonstrations and patriotic slogans, they should not fear what the government announced." Habash added that "continuous talk about armed gangs, infiltrators and Salafis is no longer convincing, especially as it only surfaces when people demonstrate for change but never during massive marches supporting the president."
In reaction to the bloodbath in Daraa, the two members of parliament representing the governorate resigned their posts in protest of killing demonstrators in their governorate and "their inability to protect the people from the bullets." They also described the shooting of protesters as a "stigma of shame".
The former detainee and leading figure among lawyers Haitham Al-Maleh accused the Syrian regime of not possessing "a political outlook, but only a security mindset". "If the regime had a political vision it would have acted upon it a long time ago and taken steps to end tensions. All the steps taken so far are nothing more than superficial," Al-Maleh told the Weekly.
US President Barack Obama accused the Syrian president of seeking assistance from Iran to suppress peaceful demonstrators. Washington also indicated that it may impose sanctions on Syrian officials. US sources said that the administration is also considering withdrawing its ambassador to Damascus, who only just took office two months ago.
The UN Security Council began drafting a resolution to condemn the brutal suppression by the Syrian authorities, and strongly worded condemnations were issued by the secretary general, as well as by France, Italy, Germany, Holland and other European states.
The demonstrators say they will continue protesting and will not be derailed by threats or more deaths in their ranks. The residents of Hamah governorate, where thousands were killed in 1982 by security forces, wrote on a banner: "We are willing to sacrifice another 70,000 martyrs". The revolutionary youth declare on the Internet and on the street that "despite endless attempts, the regime will not be able to disperse us". Even some moderates in Syria who welcomed dialogue with the regime as part of a specific plan, have begun to withdraw this proposal, saying that the security solution is killing any possible dialogue. (see p.10)