Saturday, May 7, 2011

Syria Protests Gain New Supporters

Saturday, May 7, 2011

DUBAI—Syrians took to the streets in cities across the country in defiance of the government's lethal bid to clamp down on antiregime protests, with demonstrators appearing to gain support from tribal members and some army troops.


Protesters in Homs on Friday, in an image from an online video.

Syrians in several cities marched after Islamic prayers in what activists called a "Friday of Defiance." Activists and witnesses cited at least 27 deaths in four towns. Fifteen of the fatalities came in the central city of Homs, where witnesses say a bus full of security forces—identified by one resident as members of Syria's intelligence services—shot at protesters as it sped by.

"They didn't get out, just rolled down the windows and sprayed through the crowd," the witness said.

For the first time in the seven-week uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, some members of Syria's military appear to have wielded their weapons in support of protesters.


Jordanians march in solidarity

Following the Homs shooting, in the city's Bab Amro suburb, military soldiers and members of the military intelligence clashed in a two-hour exchange of gunfire, two residents and one activist said. Eight members of the military intelligence forces died in the clash, the activist said.

The activist, who spoke with several witnesses in Homs, said the battle appeared to be over shots fired at protesters. "It seems the military intelligence had agreed with the army not to fire, but then fired," this person said.

Unrest in Syria

Despite the rising death toll from weeks of unrest, people across Syria continue to protest the government of President Bashar al-Assad. See events by day.

Regional Upheaval

Track events day by day in the region.

Uprising in the Middle East

Popular demonstrations in Tunisia toppled a president and spread to countries across the region. See photos from protests from Algeria to Yemen.

Speaking about events in Homs on Friday, the government said an armed, criminal gang attacked an army checkpoint in Bab Amro, killing a military officer and four police officers.

Syria's government has maintained the protests are instigated by extremist, terrorist groups, and moved quickly to quell them after Mr. Assad first moved in March and early April to offer limited reforms, including sacking his government and ending a decades-old emergency law. Syria has expelled foreign journalists from the country and barred those inside from reporting on areas of protests.

Armies have played pivotal roles in demonstrations that have swept the Middle East this year. The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, which helped inspire Syria's movement, reached critical momentum when troops threw support behind protesters.

Syria's army, however, is viewed as one of Mr. Assad's most loyal forces. Its commanders and high-ranking officers are drawn from the Alawite ruling class. Senior members of Syria's intelligence forces—known broadly as the Mukhabarat, which includes military intelligence—are also drawn from these Assad loyalists.

The army's lower ranks, though, are more representative of Syria's Sunni-majority society.

Reports of army defections have surfaced in the town of Deraa, the cradle of Syria's recent protests and site of a 10-day military blockade in which a largely Sunni army has reportedly fired on the Sunni-majority town and left it without supplies and power.

Syria's government said this week the Deraa siege was ending. Residents on Thursday said their communications and movements were still blocked, and were unreachable Friday.

Earlier reports relayed by activists have also indicated clashes between the regular military and an elite unit head by Mr. Assad's brother, Maher, and clashes involving soldiers who refused to fire on protesters. The reports weren't possible to verify.

In an apparent effort to capitalize on such reports, a group of opposition members abroad last week proposed that the army chief of staff and defense minister lead a transition period to a democratically elected government. The proposal wasn't officially acknowledged.

Brutal Crackdown

March 20, 2011: In Deraa, a city near the border with Jordan, police fire live ammunition and tear gas at thousands of Syrians who are protesting the detention of teenagers for scrawling anti-government graffiti on the wall of a school.

March 23: Syrian police fire on antigovernment protesters in Daraa, killing 15.

April 9: Syrian security forces fire on mourners at a funeral for slain protesters, killing 37 around the country.

April 22: Syrian security forces fire on thousands of people in funeral processions, killing at least 120 people over two days. Lawmakers and religious leaders resigned in disgust over the killings.

April 26: Syrian forces kill at least 34 people in Deraa.

April 29: In Deraa, 42 people are killed when security forces fire on thousands of protesters chanting, 'We are not afraid!'

April 30: Syrian troops killed four people while storming a mosque that became a focal point for protesters in the besieged southern city of Deraa.

The White House on Friday said it would adjust relations with Syria unless it refrained from "brute force and flagrant violations of human rights in supressing peaceful protests."

"We strongly condemn and deplore the Syrian government's use of violence and mass arrests in response to ongoing demonstrations," it said. "We again salute the courage of Syrian protestors for insisting on their right to express themselves."

Also Friday, European Union ambassadors agreed to enact sanctions against 13 Syrian officials starting next week. The sanctions won't affect Mr. Assad, EU officials said.

The day's protests appeared to mark the inclusion of more segments of Syria's society in demonstrations against the authoritarian regime, which began in Deraa and other towns on Syria's periphery.

Significant protests began only this week in Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, as students in each began to call for an end to the government's harsh response to the crisis. At least 650 people have died since the unrest began in mid-March, according to estimates by human-rights groups.

Organizers in some towns said Friday's protests were joined by members of the community who hadn't before joined street demonstrations, including older members of Bedouin communities. In Homs, Syria's third-largest city, Bedouin tribes joined streams of young protesters, a resident reached by telephone said.

Thousands of people marched across Homs even as military tanks rolled Friday morning into the city at four different locations, stationing in pairs at every roundabout or crossing in the city, according to the resident.

The tanks attacked electricity generators and by nighttime, Homs was cut off from electricity, Internet and land-line telephone services, according to residents, who feared the army may be preparing to attack the city later at night.

Activists said thousands of people also marched in Hama, in Qamishli in the northeast on Turkey's border, and in the suburbs of Damascus, with hundreds marching through the central Midan district of the capital itself.

In Hama, different demonstrations headed out of 18 mosques before meeting at the city's main citadel, where security forces opened fire and protesters scattered to dodge bullets. A video posted on YouTube, which appears to be taken by a protester recording events on a camera phone, shows people marching on the street but quickly running the other way as gunfire breaks out and tear gas clouds the air.

In 1982, Hama was home to an attack on an Islamist uprising that killed at least 10,000 people.

Videos posted on YouTube also show protesters in the northwestern city of Idlib, chanting "Death before humiliation." In Zabadani, some 40 kilometers northwest of Damascus, they chanted "We will not surrender until the regime falls."

In the northern city of Aleppo, security forces dispersed a protest of about 300 people by beating them with sticks, an activist said by telephone. "We plan to go out later in the night, but Aleppo remains relatively quiet," he said.

Write to Nour Malas at

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