March 24, 2011:
On one side in Syria stands a regime unafraid of using extreme violence to quash internal unrest. In one infamous example, it levelled entire sections
of the city of Hama with artillery and bulldozers to put down an uprising by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.
The emergency laws, which have been a feature of many Arab countries, allow people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial. Human rights groups state violations of other basic liberties are rife in Syria, with torture and abuse common in police stations, detention centres and prisons, and dissenters regularly imprisoned for years without due process.
In Daraa’s Roman-era old city, the protesters have persisted through seven days of increasing violence by security forces, but have not inspired significant unrest in other parts of the country. “Even if the government can contain violence to Daraa for the time-being, protests will spread,” a Syria expert wrote in a recent blog posting. “The wall of fear has broken.”
Media access to the marches in Daraa were restricted, but a resident of Daraa stated by telephone that witnesses there reported seeing at least 34 people slain when police launched a relentless assault Wednesday in Daraa’s old city, fatally shooting many in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours. Videos posted by activists on YouTube and Twitter showed dead and wounded people lying on a street in Daraa, as heavy gunfire crackled nearby and people shouted in panic. Ahed Al Hendi, a Syrian dissident and Arabic program co-ordinator for the U.S.-based human rights organization cyberdissidents.org, stated at least 45 people were killed on Wednesday.
Syria’s state TV stated that Assad ordered the release of all detainees in connection with the unrest of the past few days. Shortly afterward, Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, stated authorities released several activists, writers and bloggers who were detained in different parts of Syria in an apparent response to events in Daraa. Rihawi stated those released included Mazen Darwish, a journalist and activist, and writer Loay Hussein.
In Daraa, unrest there continued, with massive crowds shouting “Syria, freedom!” as they marched toward one of the agricultural hub’s main cemeteries to bury the dead, according to an activist in touch with people in the city. Troops were in control of the area around al-Omari mosque, where protesters had sought shelter and most of Wednesday’s fighting occurred. Elsewhere, evidence of fighting were rocks that littered the streets and the remains of tires that had been set on fire by protesters the day before.
The White House condemned what it called the Syrian government’s brutal repression of demonstrations and the killing of civilians by security forces. White House press secretary Jay Carney stated those responsible for the violence must be held accountable.
President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, promised increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers, a familiar package of incentives offered by other nervous Arab regimes in recent weeks. The Syrian government promised lifting some of the Mideast’s most repressive laws in an attempt to stop a week-long uprising in a southern city from spreading and threatening its nearly 50-year rule.
The promises were immediately rejected by many activists who called for demonstrations around the country on Friday in response to a crackdown that protesters state killed dozens of anti-government marchers in the city of Daraa. Demonstrators were adamant not to forget the martyrs of Daraa and vowed not to be silenced.
Syria’s socialist government launched a massive state-run wheat growing project in the 1990s and began pumping massive amounts of water from the aquifers around Daraa, leaving private pasture and farmland increasingly parched. Small farmers and herders increasingly moved into the province’s main city and surrounding villages, looking for work and in many cases growing angry at the lack of opportunity.
As a result, tensions have been rising around Daraa in marked contrast to the prosperous cities of Damascus and Aleppo. There, wealthy Sunni merchant classes have loaned their political support to the minority government of Alawis who are members of a branch of Shiite Islam, in exchange for relatively generous amounts of personal and economic freedom.
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