Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 May 2011
Issue No. 1046
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Daraa under siege

The Syrian army has put the southern city of Daraa under siege in attempts to end the pro-democracy protests that began six weeks ago

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Protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman hold a poster of the Syrian president and Libyan leader which reads "The two sides of the same coin"

The southern Syrian city of Daraa, for decades the country's food basket, has emerged from the periphery to take its place somewhere near the centre of events over the past few weeks as a result of the Syrian army's putting the city under siege in attempts to crush pro-democracy protests, writes Bassel Oudat.

Two weeks ago, the Syrian leadership decided to crack down on the people of Daraa because protests in the city were encouraging similar demonstrations across the country. Daraa's population was the first to break the barrier of fear that has kept the Syrian people subjugated by the regime, and the city's people were the first to demand freedom, dignity and the Syrian security services to be held accountable for their actions.

As a result, the Syrian authorities cut off electricity, mobile and landline phone services, and water supplies to the city, as tanks rammed through the streets and deployed around mosques and at other strategic locations.

Foreign and Arab journalists are banned from entering the city, preventing them from reporting on what is happening in Daraa. However, residents have continued to record events using mobile phones, supplying Arab satellite TV channels with coverage of events using Jordanian mobile phone networks or Thuraya satellite phones.

The images speak volumes about the tragedy of a people under a state of siege in the city where the Roman emperor Philip the Arab was born in antiquity.

Eyewitnesses in Daraa report that security forces have burned down pharmacies to prevent residents from seeking medical treatment and doctors have been arrested when trying to help the wounded. Residents have stopped taking those injured in the protests to the government hospital in Daraa, under the control of the security forces, because patients are arrested as soon as they receive treatment.

The security forces have bombed water tanks on the roofs of buildings, and, following the army's invasion of the city, Daraa has become a ghost town, with only the noise of automatic weapons fire and sporadic mortars breaking the silence. Eyewitnesses say that corpses are lying in the streets, it being impossible to move them because of snipers targeting anything that moves.

Six weeks ago, the people of Daraa began protests against the Syrian regime, demanding the release of 17 children who had written graffiti on the walls of their school demanding the overthrow of the regime. The children were tortured by the security forces, which then used live ammunition against demonstrators demanding their release.

Dozens were killed, and within days the protesters' demands had gone from demands that the children be released to a wide array of demands for freedom, democracy and political change in Syria.

The demonstrations swept through other cities across Syria, with protests becoming an almost daily occurrence. In response to escalating violence by the security services, chants and slogans began calling for the overthrow of the regime. As the demands rose and gained support among the population as a whole, the military intervened and placed Daraa under siege.

Those who have been unable to flee the city have told harrowing stories about the brutality taking place inside, with tanks, heavy artillery and machine guns bringing the population to its knees.

Former Jordanian army officers in the neighbouring Jordanian town of Al-Ramtha say that the Syrian forces have used heavy artillery in Daraa, distinguishable by the sounds of the weapons used and the plumes of black smoke rising above the city.

Daraa's Al-Omari Mosque, built during the rule of Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab, was the first site of the demonstrations, subsequently becoming a symbol of the protesters' demands.

During the security forces' first attempt at storming the city five weeks ago when the protests began, protesters were killed in the Mosque's main courtyard, though the building has now become a fortress for the protesters, filled with demonstrators at almost all hours of the day.

The demonstrators recite poetry, exchange political views, sing freedom songs and play music in an atmosphere reminiscent of the pro-democracy protests taking place elsewhere in the Arab world, despite the fact that the mosque's stone walls have witnessed terrible events, including the shelling and death of the city's young people by the security forces.

Despite the heavy military presence and the mass arrests, the people of Daraa have continued to come out onto the streets to protest and to call for the removal of the Syrian regime. Tactics used include small groups of demonstrators coming together and then quickly dispersing in attempts to evade the army sent in to kill them.

Last Friday, 48 people were killed when the military opened fire on thousands of demonstrators who had come from neighbouring villages to express their solidarity with those in the besieged city. This brought the number of people killed in Daraa to more than 250 since the beginning of the protests, according to Syrian human rights organisations.

"They have deployed tanks even in the public gardens," one eyewitness reported. "Security patrols appear to be under orders to shoot on sight." More than 25 people were killed by security forces as they attempted to bring medical and food supplies, including infant formula and water, to besieged districts of the city.

The families of those killed have been unable to give them proper funerals because security forces are firing at anyone going to the city's cemetery. The army has blocked roads connecting the city to surrounding villages, even roads used by residents to bring in humanitarian relief.

Video clips made by activists in the city have been broadcast on the Internet and satellite TV channels showing piles of corpses of young men being stored in refrigerated trucks because they cannot be buried due to the snipers.

The official Syrian news agency is continuing to claim that these images have been "fabricated" by the satellite channels and other media. Meanwhile, the Al-Omari Mosque has been transformed into a field clinic to treat the wounded, and Christian residents have opened up a church to treat those injured in the protests.

In reaction to the events in Daraa, three MPs from the district have resigned from the Syrian parliament in protest, as has the governorate's mufti. More than 200 Daraa residents who were members of the ruling Syrian Baath Party are also said to have resigned their party memberships.

Eyewitnesses in Daraa say that the army's fourth mechanised brigade, led by Maher Al-Assad, brother of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, was used to attack Daraa. In interviews with satellite TV channels, residents have also reported divisions within the army, claiming that soldiers from the army's fifth brigade have joined with residents, defending them in fights with the security forces and the fourth brigade.

The official Syrian news agency has accused "armed terrorist groups" of killing soldiers near Daraa.

Daraa, located 100km from the Syrian capital Damascus, was once a main stopping-off point on the railway line to Mecca in the Hijaz, built during the Ottoman period nearly a century ago. It has now become the epicentre of demonstrations challenging the Syrian regime and the flashpoint of an uprising that no one knows how it will end.

In comments to Al-Ahram Weekly, Haitham Mannaa, spokesman of the Arab Human Rights Committee, asked whether "reason is any longer part of the Syrian decision-making process" in the light of events in Daraa.

Daraa "is a city where the vast majority of the population supports the 'Intifada of Dignity'. A million people sympathise with the people of Daraa and see themselves as part of the move towards democracy in Syria. These people will not be intimidated by the killings," Mannaa said.

"There are ways and means for the siege of Daraa to be lifted, and there has been vast support for the Syrian uprising from Arab and international civil society."

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