Syrian security forces break up anti-government demo

Former head of Israel’s negotiating team with Damascus says Assad regime is stable.

March 17, 2011 01:24
3 minute read.
Protests in Syria

Syria Protest 311. (photo credit: Youtube)

Security forces wielding batons dispersed 150 demonstrators who had gathered in central Damascus on Wednesday in the most serious protest against Syria’s ruling hierarchy since revolts began in the Arab world late last year.

Scores of plainclothes security officers charged the demonstrators assembled outside the Interior Ministry to demand the release of political prisoners, a witness said. The gathering in Marjeh Square, an Ottoman-era plaza in the center of the capital, had been silent, with protesters raising pictures of imprisoned relatives and friends, before security forces started hitting them with their batons.

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Syrian authorities arrested as many as 35 people, Bloomberg News reported, quoting opponents of President Bashar Assad’s regime and human rights activists.

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington and head of its negotiating team with Syria, said the odds of the Bashar Assad regime becoming the next victim of Arab popular revolt were slim.

“The reason is three-fold,” he said.

“One, the regime has an iron grip.

The people assume, with a well-warranted degree of certainty, that any attempt to topple the regime will be met with a brutal suppression that will make Muammar Gaddafi look like a kindergarten teacher.

“What Hafez Assad, the father of the current president, did in Hama in 1982 – 13,000 people were killed when the Muslim Brotherhood revolted against the regime – is still alive in their memory.

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“Secondly, the Syrian elite – which is made up primarily of members of the Alawite community – is very cohesive, because they know that in the event of a regime change there might be a settling of scores,” said Rabinovich, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, New York University and Tel Aviv University.

Third, he said, “the regime has a certain degree of legitimacy deriving from the fact that the regime is seen as standing for resistance, and has a certain regional and international clout… There is a certain degree of acceptance.”

One of the demonstrators in Wednesday’s protest carried a picture of Mohannad al-Hassani, a lawyer who won an international human rights prize last May for representing political prisoners. He was sentenced a month later to three years in jail.

“This is chaos,” a security officer shouted at protesters.

“No, this is a peaceful protest,” a demonstrator answered.

The protesters dispersed after the attack, and security forces continued arresting more people, shoving them into a bus and a darkened van. An Interior Ministry official said “infiltrators” had tried to stir chaos in front of the ministry.

A brief counter-demonstration then started, with people chanting: “With our soul, with our blood, we shall sacrifice for Bashar,” in reference to Assad.

Since mass uprisings overthrew Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Syrian authorities have intensified a long-running campaign of arrests of dissidents, independent writers and opposition figures.

There are an estimated 3,000-4,000 political prisoners in Syria, mostly held without trial. They include Kurds, Islamists and secular figures who have been demanding a democratic system to replace the Ba’ath Party’s five-decade monopoly on power.

On Tuesday, about 40 people joined a protest in Damascus, briefly chanting political slogans in the first challenge to the ruling party since civil unrest gripped the Arab Middle East.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called Syria’s authorities among the worst violators of human rights in 2010, jailing lawyers, torturing opponents and using violence to repress ethnic Kurds.

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