Protesters march in Syria for fifth straight day

Leading rights activist detained; analysts: No Mideast leader is immune from revolt; Assad is ‘between a rock and a hard place.’

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
March 22, 2011 16:31
3 minute read.
Demonstrators in southern Syria

Protesters in southern Syria 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)

 
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Hundreds marched in southern Syria for a fifth day on Tuesday, protesting peacefully against the Bashar Assad government while a leading rights activist was detained near Damascus.

Protesters gathered near the Old Omari mosque in Deraa and in the nearby town of Nawa in the strategic Hauran plateau, close to the Golan Heights and the border with Jordan, riding a wave of Arab unrest that has already toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.

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Security forces killed four protesters when the demonstrations erupted in Deraa on Friday, and an 11-year-old child died after inhaling tear gas.

Mordechai Kedar, a research fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and author of Assad in Search of Legitimacy, said that in this digital, media-saturated age, operations like the 1982 crackdown in Hama – when the army killed some 20,000 people in quelling a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion – could not be so easily concealed.

“International opinion would move very quickly against Assad if he were to use excessive force, but Syrians interpret this hesitation as weakness,” Kedar said. “If Assad doesn’t use excessive force, he encourages the demonstrators. If he does, he will encourage Britain and France to bomb Syria as they are now in Libya. So he’s between a rock and a hard place.”

“We haven’t seen this kind of riots or demonstrations since the early ’80s,” added Uzi Rabi, director of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.



“The domino effect – or the Tunisian or Egyptian effect – is really in evident in Syria.

“Nobody is immune from what’s going on in the region,” he said. “The rules of the game have changed, and if it can happen in Syria, it shows that we are in the midst of real upheaval and tumultuous change in the Middle East.”

Syrian authorities arrested a leading campaigner on Tuesday who had supported the protesters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Loay Hussein, a political prisoner from 1984 to 1991, was taken from his home in the Sehnaya district near Damascus, the independent rights group said in a statement.

Vice President Farouq al-Shara said on Tuesday that Assad was committed to “continue the path of reform and modernization in Syria,” Lebanon’s Al- Manar Television reported, adding he “cannot be against any Syrian citizen.”

AP reported that the central government had dismissed the governor of the Deraa region in a bid to quell unrest.

In Geneva, the United Nations Office for Human Rights said the authorities “need to put an immediate halt to the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, especially the use of live ammunition.”

The office said the protesters had the right to air grievances and be heard by the government, AP reported.

A main demand of the protesters is an end what they term repression by the secret police, which is headed in Deraa province by a cousin of Assad, who faces the biggest challenge to his rule since succeeding his father Hafez Assad in 2000.

Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in a 1963, banning any opposition and ushering in decades of economic retreat characterized by nationalization.

The tone taken in the Arabic press toward the Assad regime has toughened since the unrest began.

Abd Al-Bari Atwan – the Gaza-born editor of Londonbased daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi and a prominent supporter of the Arab “resistance” camp – wrote last week, “For the past decade the Syrian people has heard the regime of Bashar Al- Assad promise reforms, but not a single one has ever been implemented…The [only] security mechanism that can really protect a regime, any regime, is a free people and its elected democratic institutions.”

“I fear for Syria, the last bastion left against the American- Israeli enterprise, which has humiliated this nation and stolen its resources and its spirit of resistance,” he wrote.

“That is why I want it to be bolstered with reforms, in order to protect it and keep it from imploding.”

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