Syrians march for freedom on Independence Day

Haifa Univ. expert: Assad’s address was little more than posturing; protesters chant: "God, Syria, freedom, that's all."

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
April 17, 2011 20:56
4 minute read.
Syrians living in Jordan shout slogans.

syrian protester_521. (photo credit: MAJED JABER / REUTERS)

 
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Thousands of Syrians chanted slogans calling for greater freedom at Independence Day rallies on Sunday – a day after President Bashar Assad promised to lift emergency law, witnesses said.

“The people want freedom,” several hundred people shouted at the grave of Ibrahim Hananu in Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo, which has been mostly free of pro-democracy protests that erupted more than a month ago in the south. Hananu was a leader in the struggle against French colonialism during the 1920s and ‘30s.

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Syrian security forces killed three mourners on Sunday when they opened fire on a funeral that had turned into a demonstration on a highway outside the town of Talbiseh, north of the central city of Homs, two witnesses said.

They had been attending the funeral of a man killed the day before by security forces, the witnesses said. The mourners marched across a bridge on the highway near where security police and gunmen loyal to Assad were stationed.

Hundreds also turned out in the southern city of Suweida, in the country’s Druse heartland.

They chanted “God, Syria, freedom, that’s all,” before coming under attack from Assad loyalists, a woman at the demonstration said. Dozens of protesters were reportedly injured.

The rallies – which human rights campaigners said included a march by about 1,500 people in the northwestern city of Banias – were held on the day Syria marked the anniversary of the departure of French soldiers 65 years ago.

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Assad said on Saturday that legislation to replace emergency law – in place for almost 50 years – should be ready this week. But he did not address protesters’ demands to curb Syria’s pervasive security apparatus, and dismantle its authoritarian system.

Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of national security studies at the University of Haifa, said Assad’s latest address was little more than posturing.

“He’s maneuvering around by making certain concessions; he’s trying to appear as a benevolent dictator – rather than one who uses force to put down every expression of opposition to his regime,” he said. “But his iron hand is still very much being felt all around Syria. I don’t think he’s given in to any of the fundamental demands of the opposition.”

Ben-Dor said the Assad regime’s very nature obviated any possibility of real reform.

“The regime is narrowly based – it’s founded on the force of the security forces, the military and the tightly organized party apparatus. That’s all he has going for him in the long run. Without that, he’s dead lost,” he said.

“On the formal level, he’s going to lift the state of emergency to show he’s not under siege – that everything is normal, that political life is as it used to be. But in practice it’s not going to be much different. The security forces are going to be deployed around the country, and they’re going to put down any real expression of opposition by force.”

Ben-Dor predicted that Assad’s fate would be far different from those of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

“He’s under no illusions after seeing what happened to Mubarak. He’s going to be much worse off because he’s a member of a fiercely hated minority. He’s under no illusions about what’s at stake – the survival of his family and of the entire Alawite sect in Syria.”

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Meanwhile, thousands of mourners chanted slogans calling for Assad’s overthrow on Sunday at the funeral of a soldier killed during the unrest, witnesses said. The chants – more hostile towards the Syrian leader than at many recent demonstrations – appeared to have been prompted by a belief the soldier, 20-year-old Muhammad Ali Radwan al- Qoman, was tortured by security forces.

“Freedom, freedom Syria, Bashar get out,” people chanted, their slogans audible in a telephone call with one of the mourners at the funeral in Hirak, 33 km. northeast of the southern city of Deraa.

“Write on the keffiyeh, Bashar is Syria’s traitor,” they also chanted.

A relative of Qoman’s, who declined to be named, said Qoman’s family was told he was accidentally electrocuted at his military unit near Damascus.

However, he said Qoman, a military conscript, had signs of beating to his feet, and doctors at the local hospital said there were indications of torture.

Witnesses said thousands gathered in a main Deraa square after noon prayers on Sunday, chanting for “the downfall of the regime.”

Rights groups say more than 200 people have been killed since demonstrations erupted in Deraa on March 18.

The state news agency SANA said on Sunday that a “large quantity” of weapons had been seized at the Tanaf border crossing with Iraq – including rifles, night vision goggles, explosives and pistols.

It said officials also had recently seized arms shipments at crossings with Turkey and Lebanon.

On Saturday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed what he said was Assad’s “acknowledgement...that reform in Syria is necessary and urgent.

“We call on the Syrian government to lift the state of emergency next week, as proposed by President Assad, and to ensure that those responsible for the deaths of civilians are held to account,” he said.

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