Syrian Government Cracks Down As Protests Flare

While the world pays attention to Libya and Japan, tensions have flared in yet another Arab country:

DAMASCUS, Syria — Protesters set fire to the ruling Baath Party’s headquarters and other government buildings in the southern city of Dara’a on Sunday, as protesters rallied and clashed with the police for a third straight day, witnesses said.

Police officers fired live ammunition into the crowds, killing at least one and wounding scores of others, witnesses said. But the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, also made some conciliatory gestures in an apparent attempt to stop the cycle of public anger that has fueled uprisings in other Arab countries in the past three months.

Syria, a police state known for its brutal suppression of any public protests, seemed immune to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world until the past week, when demonstrations took place in several cities. The southern town of Dara’a, where citizens were outraged by the arrest of more than a dozen schoolchildren, has seen the largest protests by far. Thousands took to the streets on Sunday, as they have for several days now.

Mr. Assad sent a delegation to offer condolences to the families of those killed in the clashes in Dara’a, including the deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, and Tamer al-Hajeh, the minister of local administration.

Thousands gathered in and around the Omari mosque in Dara’a, chanting their demands: the release of all political prisoners; trials for those who shot and killed protesters; the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law; more freedoms; and an end to pervasive corruption. “No fear after today,” the crowd chanted, according to witnesses and human rights activists.

Even as a group of prominent Dara’a citizens sat down for talks with Mr. Assad’s delegation, there was pandemonium in the streets. As the protests grew heated, the police sprayed tear gas, further angering the protesters, who began tearing down a poster of Mr. Assad in the main square of Dara’a. The police then opened fire into the crowd, witnesses said.

Protesters soon turned the Omari mosque into a field hospital, as families “feared taking their relatives to the hospital,” according to a human rights activist who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.

Protesters then forced their way through security barriers and headed toward the Baath Party headquarters and other government symbols. In addition to the party headquarters, protesters burned the town’s main courthouse and a branch of the SyriaTel phone company, which is owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of the president.

As on previous days, the Syrian authorities denied any role in the violence and characterized the protesters and those who shot at them as infiltrators. The state-owned SANA news service stated on its Web site that “some agitators assaulted public hospitals and burned public properties, causing fear among the citizens, and shot at the police, who never returned fire.”

The agency said the government would “take all measures to secure citizens’ safety and properties.” Mr. Assad announced that he had fired the mayor of Dara’a, a demand the protesters made Friday. “All those proved guilty will be held accountable,” the news agency said.

And it’s worth noting that the Syrian regime has shown absolutely no mercy in the past in dealing with political opponents. In 1982, the Syrian Army virtually destroyed the city of Hama, killing some 14,000 to 17,000 people, in a campaign against¬† Islamists contests Ba’ath Party rule. Don’t think they wouldn’t do it again.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.