Syria tightens its grip on protest centers

New video footage reveals extreme brutality of Assad’s forces; MK Kara says the Syrian opposition asked him to mediate.

By OREN KESSLER
April 27, 2011 22:58
Protester throws rock at tank in Deraa, Syria

Tank Syria Deraa 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Syrian forces tightened their grip over several hot spots of unrest on Wednesday, as troops poured overnight into a Damascus suburb, tanks patrolled the volatile city of Deraa and security men surrounded Banias on the coast.

Authorities have removed most foreign journalists from the country, and images of the violence have come mostly from mobile-phone cameras.

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On Wednesday, video footage continued to emerge from this weekend’s crackdown in Deraa and the Damascus suburbs. Some of the most graphic images showed peaceful protesters being met with repeated machine-gun fire, leaving many lying in their own blood, some dead or badly wounded.

One of the images showed a bloodied, unconscious boy with a gaping head wound, further evidence that Syrian snipers are conducting an unforgiving shoot-to-kill policy as long as protests persist.

Deputy Negev and Galilee Development Minister Ayoub Kara, on behalf of the Likud, said Israel needed to do more to stop the bloodletting.

“After I saw the horrific images from the streets, my humanity urged me to act. No one can bear seeing that,” he said.

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“The world is sitting idly by, but it can’t apply a different standard to Syria than it does to Libya... Sticking our heads in the sand over what’s happening to Assad doesn’t win us much respect in this region.”

Kara, a Druse, said he has been in contact in recent weeks with leaders of Syria’s opposition.

“Since the disturbances broke out in Syria, my office has become a kind of control room for the opposition,” he said. “I understand their language and I’m a representative of the Israeli government, so to them I’m their link to the free world.”

The lawmaker said the opposition leaders, concerned by the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood within their movement, asked him to serve as a mediator in indirect talks with Damascus. This week, Syrian opposition leaders from several religious denominations met with representatives of European right-wing parties in Vienna in a bid to put pressure on Damascus to stop the violence, he said.

Kara said one of the opposition leaders with whom he was in contact was a former high-ranking member of the Syrian government who recently defected to a foreign country.

“We are at a turning point, and there are two possible outcomes. One is that the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, another that the regime survives, and the third that the government endures but is in the hands of the ‘sane’ opposition, and gradually leads Syria into democracy and ties with the West,” he said.

“It’s all open – no one knows what will happen,” Kara said.

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A witness told Reuters that a convoy of at least 30 army tanks headed early on Wednesday from southwest of Damascus, near the Golan Heights, in a direction that could take them to either the Damascus suburb of Douma or to Deraa.

Overnight, white buses had brought hundreds of soldiers in full combat gear into Douma, from where protesters have tried to march into the center of the capital over the past two weeks, only to be stopped by bullets.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had names of at least 453 civilians killed during the protests across the country against Assad’s 11-year authoritarian rule.

A resident in Deraa, where electricity, water and phone lines were cut when the army rolled in at dawn on Monday, told Reuters that fresh food was running out and grocery stores were giving away their produce.

“It’s mostly tinned food they are distributing to us,” he said by telephone.

A relative said his neighbor saw a tank driving over the body of a young man in the main Tishrin square on Tuesday.

“They are telling us: ‘You have to accept us and we will remain forever your rulers, whether you like it or not. And if you resist us, this is your fate,’” he said.

Diplomats said the unit Assad sent into Deraa on Monday was the ultra-loyal Fourth Mechanized Division, commanded by his brother Maher. Reports from opposition figures and Deraa residents, which could not be confirmed, said that some soldiers from another unit had refused to fire on civilians.

One country directly affected by the unrest is Syria’s close ally Iran, as regime change in Damascus could deal a severe blow to the Islamic Republic’s ability to project its power in the region and threaten Israel.

Tehran, which regards Syria as a close ally in a mainly Sunni-dominated region suspicious of non- Arab Shi’ite Iran, has called the revolt in Syria “a Zionist plot.”

“We are worried about the resistance against Israel,” Asad Zarei, an Iranian pro-government political analyst, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. “If the changes in Syria happen in a way that the resistance is undermined, we are very worried.”

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Iranian-born analyst Amir Taheri noted, “From the start, Tehran media have labeled the Syrian uprising ‘a Zionist plot,’ the term they used to describe the pro-democracy movement in Iran itself.

“In 2009, the mullahs claimed that those killed in the streets of Tehran and Tabriz were not peaceful demonstrators but ‘Zionist and Infidel’ agents who deserved to die. The Assad clan is using the same vicious vocabulary against freedom lovers in Syria as snipers kill them in the streets of Damascus, Deraa and Douma.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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