Syrian security forces clamp down on Damascus

Security forces swamp Syrian capital; Britain fears slide into civil war; Dempsey says intervention would be very difficult.

February 19, 2012 23:31
4 minute read.
Syrian tank in a Damascus suburb [file]

Syrian tank in a Damascus suburb 390 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout)

AMMAN/BEIRUT - Police and militia patrols fanned out in the Syrian capital's Mezze district on Sunday to prevent a repeat of protests against President Bashar Assad that have threatened his grip on Damascus, opposition activists said.

On the international front, China said it believed a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis was still possible but Britain's foreign minister said he feared the Middle Eastern country will slide into civil war.

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China's official Xinhua news agency reflected Beijing's view a day after a Chinese envoy met Assad in Damascus while thousands of Syrians demonstrated in the heart of the capital in one of the biggest anti-government rallies there since a nationwide uprising started nearly a year ago.

On Sunday, the body of Samer al-Khatib, a young protester who was killed when security forces opened fire on the protest, was buried in Mezze early in the morning.

Security forces maintained a heavy presence to prevent the funeral from turning into an anti-Assad demonstration, opposition activists contacted by Reuters from Amman said.

Fifteen pick-up trucks carrying security police and armed pro-Assad militiamen, known as "shabbiha," surrounded the funeral as Khatib was buried quietly, they said.

Police cars and militia jeeps patrolled Mezze while secret police agents spread out on foot, stopping men at random and checking their identification cards, they said.

"Walking in Mezze now carries the risk of arrest. The area is quiet and even the popular food shops in Sheikh Saad are empty," activist Moaz al-Shami said, referring to a main street.

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The Damascus protest indicated the movement against Assad, who has ruled Syria for 11 years after succeeding his father Hafez upon his death, has not been cowed by repression and embraces a wide section of Syrian society.

Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, in a majority Sunni country, says he is fighting foreign-backed terrorists.

Saturday's shooting by security forces took place as a Chinese envoy, Foreign Minister Zhai Jun, met Assad and appealed to all sides to end the violence.

Zhai also expressed Beijing's support for Assad's plan to hold a referendum and multi-party elections within four months - a move the West and some in Syria's fragmented opposition movement have dismissed as a sham.

China has emerged as a leading player in the multiple international efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria and is one of Assad's main defenders.

"China believes, as many others do, there is still hope the Syria crisis can be resolved through peaceful dialogue between the opposition and the government, contrary to some Western countries' argument that time is running out for talks in Syria," the Xinhua commentary said.

It also criticized the West's stance, highlighting differences between foreign powers over how to deal with the conflict. Western countries were "driven less by their self-proclaimed 'lofty goal' of liberalizing the Syrian people than by geopolitical considerations", Xinhua said.

The words might bring a measure of comfort to Assad, who is now generally reviled in the West for a crackdown in which his security forces have killed several thousand people.

China and Russia infuriated Western and Arab states this month by blocking a draft UN Security Council resolution that backed an Arab plan urging Assad to halt the repression and surrender power.

They also voted against a similar, non-binding UN General Assembly resolution that was overwhelmingly passed this week.

No to intervention

The United States, Europe, Turkey and Gulf-led Arab states have all demanded Assad quit power.

The West has ruled out any Libya-style military intervention but the Arab League, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, has indicated some of its member states were prepared to arm the opposition, which includes the rebel Free Syrian Army.

British Foreign Minister William Hague reiterated that view on Sunday, telling the BBC: "We cannot intervene in the way we did in Libya. ... We will do many other things."

"I am worried that Syria is going to slide into a civil war and that our powers to do something about it are very constrained because, as everyone has seen, we have not been able to pass a resolution at the UN Security Council because of Russian and Chinese opposition."

In Washington the top US military officer, General Martin Dempsey, said intervening in Syria would be "very difficult" because it was not another Libya.

"It would be a big mistake to think of this as another Libya," Dempsey, chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria.

Syria's army is "very capable," with a sophisticated, integrated air defense system and chemical and biological weapons, Dempsey said.

He also thought it was premature to arm the opposition movement in Syria, because "I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point."

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