New Syrian PM seen as powerless to deal with unrest

Thousands march at Damascus funeral for slain protesters as cellphone, Internet lines go down around country.

By OREN KESSLER
April 4, 2011 01:11
3 minute read.
Syrians shout "freedom" during a protest

Syrian protests. (photo credit: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)

Thousands of Syrians called for freedom Sunday at the funeral of eight protesters killed Friday, witnesses said, as President Bashar al-Assad asked Adel Safar, a former agriculture minister, to form a new government.

“Freedom, freedom, freedom – the Syrian people are one!,” mourners chanted as they carried the bodies of eight people draped in Syrian flags through the streets of Douma, a Damascus suburb.

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“Douma is boiling. Syria as a nation may no longer keep sitting idly by and let a historic chance for freedom pass by,” one demonstrator said.

Activists and witnesses said more than 60 people have been killed in two weeks of protests in Syria, while authorities suggest a toll closer to 30.

On the ground in Syria, telephone and Internet lines appeared to be down Sunday.

“There is an arrest campaign and phone lines are down so people are suspecting interference, but the government says it is a technical problem,” a resident of Douma told AFP.

In the capital, the Internet was down and cell phone communications were practically impossible, although land lines seemed to be working fine.

Assad named Safar, the agriculture minister in the government that resigned last week, as the new PM on Sunday and charged him with forming a new cabinet. While Safar was agriculture minister, Syria experienced a devastating water crisis that experts attribute largely to corruption and mismanagement. The drought led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and Syria, once a breadbasket, became a net-grain importer.

Safar’s government will replace the outgoing cabinet of Naji al-Otari, whose resignation Assad accepted on Tuesday.

Ministers have little influence in Syria, where power is held by Assad, his family and the security apparatus. Safar will have practically no say in how authorities react to protests that have intensified in Douma – where rights activists said security forces fired at protesters on Friday demanding political freedoms and an end to graft.

More than 2,000 ethnic Kurds took to the streets of the northeastern city of Qamishli Friday, despite a promise by Assad to look into granting citizenship to Kurds who are in Syria without Syrian passports, Kurdish sources said.

“Our demands are freedom, not just citizenship!,” chanted the protesters, who were not confronted by security forces.

On Saturday, Hamas lent its support to Syria’s ruling hierarchy and said the unprecedented protests against Assad’s rule must not compromise Syria’s “rejectionist” stand against Israel.

“We hope the current situation will be overcome in the way that achieves the aspirations and the wishes of the Syrian people – and maintains the stability of Syria and its internal integration, and reinforces its role in the side of confrontation and rejection,” a Hamas statement said.

“In the light of all of this, we reaffirm our standing beside brotherly Syria, beside both its leadership and people.”

Syrian authorities freed Reuters photographer Khaled al-Hariri on Sunday, six days after detaining him as he arrived for work in Damascus last Monday.

Hariri, 50, who has worked for the agency for over 20 years in his native Syria, met colleagues in the capital after his release and told them he was well.

“Reuters is relieved that Khaled al-Hariri has been released,” Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler said. “We had not heard from Khaled for six days and were increasingly concerned about his safety and well-being.

Thankfully, he has now safely returned home to his family.”

In “The Delusions of Bashar al-Assad,” posted Sunday on the Al-Jazeera website, Palestinian-American journalist Lamis Andoni wrote that the Syrian president “insists on believing that his support for the ‘resistance against Israel’ distinguishes his regime from others in the region and, therefore, makes it immune to the revolutions that have brought down pro-Western presidents in Tunisia and Egypt.

“But Syria has made a trade-off that allows it to pose as a ‘confrontational’ state, while ensuring that its frontiers with Israel remain the quietest front in that ‘confrontation,’” she added. “Assad’s rhetoric is no doubt appealing to Arab progressive and nationalist forces. However, Syria’s actions have rarely extended beyond encouraging others to fight Israel until the last drop of mostly Palestinian or Lebanese blood is spilled.”


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