Syrians clamp down on restive eastern area

Opposition forms 'National Salvation Council' of Islamists, liberals and independents; prominent secular writer arrested.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
July 17, 2011 20:54
3 minute read.
Syrians protest against Assad near Iraq border

Syrian Protest 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Syrian tanks surrounded a town near the border with Iraq’s Sunni heartland on Sunday after tens of thousands, emboldened by defections among security forces, took to the streets there denouncing President Bashar Assad.

Assad, from the minority Alawite sect, has sent troops to towns across the country to try to end four months of protests against his rule. But activists say discontent is growing within the mostly Sunni army rank and file.

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Killings, mostly carried out by ultra-loyalist units, are leading to limited defections within the military, which is controlled by mostly Alawite officers who ultimately answer to Assad’s feared brother Maher.

BBC reporter Ian Pannell snuck into Syria this weekend and on Saturday the channel aired interviews he had conducted with defecting Syrian soldiers.

“Every Thursday and Friday people come out to protest for freedom,” said one defector. “Our commander, Captain Hassan, gave us guns and told us that whenever we see a protester we should fire at them at their legs. We didn’t fire though. The secret police have a high-powered gun which they fired at buildings – they fired at people watching from their balconies.”

“A regular soldier can’t do anything,” said another soldier. “They put him in the first line of troops and behind them are other troops. If the soldiers at the front refuse to fire on the people then the soldiers behind will fire on the soldiers at the front.”

Meanwhile, Syria’s fractured opposition is taking steps to unite, forming a 25-member National Salvation Council composed of Islamists, liberals and independents at a meeting in Istanbul on Saturday and agreeing to work toward a democratic vision.

“We shall work toward reaching out toward other opposition groups to lead the country toward the democratic vision we have,” prominent opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh told Reuters after the oneday meeting.

More than 1,400 civilians have been killed since the protests began in March, human rights organizations say.

Some 1,000 troops and security forces backed by tanks and helicopters surrounded Albu Kamal overnight, an impoverished eastern border crossing town with Iraq, a day after Military Intelligence agents there killed five protesters, including a 14- year-old boy, residents said.

The killings drove thousands into the streets, overwhelming soldiers and secret police. Residents said around 100 Air Force Intelligence personnel and the crew of at least four armored vehicles joined the protesters.

Around 500 people were rounded up in the area over the weekend.

“The protesters returned several army personnel carriers today as a sign of good will. The regime knows it will meet tough resistance if it attacks Albu Kamal, and that Iraqi tribes on the other side of the border will rush to help their brethren,” said one activist in the region, who declined to be named for fear of arrest.

Another activist said: “The whole of Albu Kamal went to the streets after the killings. Several armored personnel carriers moved into the center of the town to stop them, but ended joining sides with the human wave.”

Albu Kamal is on the eastern-most edge of the province of Deir al-Zor, where hundreds of thousands protested on Friday.

The center of Syria’s 380,000 barrels per day of oil output, the region is still among the poorest in the country with little of the oil revenue invested in the area.

The official state news agency said “armed terrorist groups” killed three security personnel in Albu Kamal on Saturday.

Syrian troops also arrested on Sunday the prominent writer Ali Abdallah, a fierce critic of the state’s use of violence.

“Ten soldiers entered my father’s house around 9 a.m. in the Damascus suburb of Qatana and took him. He just had heart surgery three weeks ago,” Abdallah’s son Muhammad told Reuters by phone from exile in Washington.

Abdallah, a 61-year-old secular thinker, was released in May after spending four years in prison because of his membership of the Damascus Declaration, a pro-democracy group of intellectuals and opposition figures, and his criticism of Assad’s alliance with Iran’s clerical rulers.

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