At least 70 dead in Syria amid worsening unrest

McClatchy NewspapersApril 22, 2011 

BEIRUT — At least 70 people died across Syria on Friday when government authorities fired on thousands of protesters who were calling for the fall of President Bashar Assad's repressive regime as part of a month-old revolt that's only likely to worsen after the latest bloodshed.

The rebellion that began five weeks ago over the arrest of schoolchildren in a tribal southern town has evolved into a nationwide popular uprising as Syrian protesters — like the Tunisians and Egyptians before them — say the time for concessions is over and nothing short of the regime's demise would stop them.

Unlike the speedy revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, however, the Syrian opposition so far hasn't recruited high-ranking defectors, and the military remains loyal to the entrenched Assad regime. That, analysts warn, is the recipe for a bloody and protracted standoff. Activists say the state violence only deepens their commitment to peaceful calls for a more democratic Syria.

"The snowball will be bigger until we have what we need," said Haitham al Maleh, a prominent dissident in Damascus. Noting that state media ignored the protests that erupted in several cities, Maleh said: "They said nothing because we have no government. We have security services only."

The U.S., in its most pointed comments yet, accused Assad of seeking help from the authoritarian regime of Iran to crush what it called the protesters' demands for "the freedoms that all individuals around the world should enjoy."

"President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria's citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies" to crush a pro-reform movement, a White House statement said.

Yet there was no indication that the Obama administration was preparing to respond to the crackdown with any of the measures, such as seeking U.N. sanctions, with which it responded to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's bloody onslaughts against his opponents.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, where protests are now the norm after congregational prayers every Friday, demonstrations erupted anew in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq and even Egypt, where tens of thousands of Muslims in a southern province gathered to demand the ouster of a Coptic Christian governor.

Yemen, especially, was notable both for the opposition's sustained ability to mobilize huge crowds for the 10th straight Friday and for the lack of violence that's marred previous rallies against the three-decade rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemen has settled into a tense stalemate as Saleh defiantly clings to power, but protesters on Friday vowed that they wouldn't stop demonstrating until he steps down.

"We have given him 33 years," said Almigdad Mojalli, a protester in Sanaa. "It is his time."

In Syria, local and international human rights groups compiled the death toll, which rose steadily throughout the day and into the night, from a network of activists scattered throughout the country. Dozens of amateur videos appeared on the Internet throughout Friday that appeared to confirm the Syrian forces' attacks on protesters.

Two protesters in Damascus, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation, said the government had locked down the streets and that they'd witnessed security forces firing on peaceful protesters.

Protesters reportedly were killed in several Damascus neighborhoods, as well as in other cities such as Homs and Hama.

In 2001, Syrians seemed hopeful when Assad came to power following three decades of rule by his heavy handed father, Hafez Assad. But the so-called Damascus Spring that brought open discussions and debate was short-lived. The regime rounded up intellectuals, writers and anyone hinting at dissent.

The reputation the younger Assad had tried to cultivate as a reformer taking on an intractable old guard has evaporated in the aftermath of violence such as Friday's attacks.

Analysts say the country is now ruled largely by the military leadership and secret service, including such figures as: the president's brother, Maher, who controls the army's powerful 4th Battalion; the head of military intelligence, Abdel Fatah Qudsia; and the head of general intelligence, Ali Mamlouk.

In a belated response to the unrest, Assad announced various reforms, such as raises in public sector wages, the end of an emergency law dating to 1963 and the formation of a new cabinet. But the changes have fallen short of protesters' demands, and the use of lethal force has dissipated faith that the promised reforms would come to fruition.

"What kind of reform did he do for the country?" said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian who is a visiting scholar at George Washington University. "He did nothing. He's arrested dissidents and opposition leaders and anyone who has different opinion. He is a continuance of his father. It's the Assad dynasty."

In recent days, the government has warned that protests could force the country into a sectarian conflict. The president's Alawite clan rules Syria as a minority amid mostly Sunni Muslims, substantial Christian and Druze communities, in addition to about 300,000 Kurds and a million Iraqi refugees. Syrian officials, like those in other countries facing revolts, raised the specter of Islamist extremists taking over if Assad is forced out.

"No matter what the Assads do, the protests will go on," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Washington-based dissident who was forced to flee Syria in 2005 and who tracks developments there on a blog, the Syrian Revolution Digest. "It's not going away, and the international community has to realize that the Assads needs it to work out an exit strategy."

In the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, throngs of anti-government demonstrators ventured outside their base in what has been dubbed "Change Square" and instead massed around Siteen Street, a road that leads to the presidential palace. Thousands more took part in anti-government protests in Taiz and at least six other cities.

Supporters of Saleh staged a counter-demonstration in a Sanaa square near the palace. Despite outbreaks of violence in Sanaa and Taiz earlier in the week, Friday's demonstrations remained peaceful. More than 120 protesters have died in clashes with security forces since the uprising began three months ago, according to human rights groups.

(Bossone, reporting from Beirut, and Baron, reporting from Sanaa, Yemen, are McClatchy special correspondents. Hannah Allam in Cairo and Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this story.)

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