Syrian dissidents ask world for help protecting citizens

Assad forces regain rebel-held town; Regime’s newspaper warns US to stop ‘meddling’ in its affairs.

By OREN KESSLER
October 2, 2011 21:15
Syrians protest President Bashar Assad.

anti assad 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir )

 
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Syria’s main opposition groups joined together on Sunday to call on the international community to take action to protect their countrymen facing a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

A statement issued in Istanbul on behalf of the newly formed National Council rejected foreign intervention that “compromises Syria’s sovereignty” but said the outside world had a humanitarian obligation to protect the Syrian people.

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“The council demands international governments and organizations meet their responsibility to support the Syrian people, protect them and stop the crimes and gross human rights violations being committed by the illegitimate current regime,” the statement said.

The Istanbul declaration was read out by Bourhan Ghalioun, a secular professor of politics living in France. He was flanked by Islamists, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Riad al-Shaqfa, Christian and Kurdish politicians and Samir Nashar, a member of the Damascus Declaration.

The statement said the Muslim Brotherhood, the Damascus Declaration – the main grouping of established opposition figures – and grassroots activists all had joined the National Council.

While few expect a Libya-style intervention in Syria, the declaration was nonetheless an important show of unity for the opposition, which has been weakened by in-fighting.

“The fact that Islamists, secular figures and activists in the ground are now on one council is a significant,” a diplomat in Damascus said. “But they still have to demonstrate that they could be politically savvy and able to fill any political vacuum.



They need a detailed action plan beyond the generalities of wanting a democratic Syria.”

The United Nations says 2,700 people, including 100 children, have been killed in six months of protests against President Bashar Assad.

Among those represented in the Damascus Declaration are former parliamentarian Riad Seif, seen as possibly playing a leadership role if Assad were to fall, and Riad al-Turk, Syria’s top dissident.

Turk, 81, but still operating underground, has moral authority over the diverse opposition, having spent 25 years in jail as a political prisoner, including almost 18 in solitary confinement.

France has already publicly supported the National Council, but it has not yet won endorsement from the United States or Syria’s powerful neighbor Turkey, which has been enraged by what it describes as brutal killings south of its border.

Assad has relied on Russia and China, which have major oil concessions in Syria and do not want to see Western influence in the Middle East spread, to block Western proposals for UN Security Council sanctions on the ruling hierarchy.

On Saturday, the official Syrian news agency said troops had regained control of the central town of Rastan after the most prolonged fighting between the army and insurgents in a six-month uprising.

“Calm and security have returned to Rastan after security police backed by army units entered the town and confronted the terrorist groups who have terrified its inhabitants,” the agency said.

The town was the scene of large protests and had been under the control of army defectors and other insurgents in the past few weeks.

Government forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, moved on the town of 40,000, which lies 180 km. north of Damascus on the main highway to Aleppo, on Tuesday.

Local activists said that members of the Khaled bin al-Walid Battalion, the main defector unit defending Rastan, withdrew from the town after it came under tank shelling and heavy machine gun fire.

The battalion was formed last month as defectors began to organize and mount guerrilla attacks against security forces and a pro-Assad militia known as the shabbiha.

One of the activists told Reuters that Rastan remained sealed while “state media stage their version of events” but that at least 130 people, both insurgents and civilians, have been reported killed in the assault since Tuesday.

“The Khaled bin al-Walid battalion took a decision to withdraw from Rastan to spare the town further killings,” he said.

The United States, which had been trying to reengage with Assad and loosen the close alliance he had with Iran before the outbreak of the unrest, has condemned the crackdown on protests and pushed for United Nations sanctions on Damascus.

Relations hit a new low on Thursday when Assad supporters threw stones and tomatoes at US Ambassador Robert Ford’s convoy as he visited an opposition figure in Damascus.

Ford and his party were uninjured but several embassy vehicles were damaged and Ford had to lock himself in an office to await help from Syrian security, US officials said.

Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman summoned Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha to the State Department on Friday and “read the riot act about this incident", a State Department spokeswoman said.

Syria, irked by Ford’s meetings with opposition figures, accused Washington of inciting violence and meddling in its affairs. Washington demanded that Syria take steps to protect US diplomats.

On Sunday a Syrian state-run newspaper said America should stop “meddling” in Syrian affairs if it hopes to avoid further “rotten eggs” attacks. Al-Ba’ath newspaper, a mouthpiece of the Syrian regime, accused Ford of supporting armed anti-government groups: “If you want to avoid rotten eggs, you should advise your country to stop its blatant interference in Syrian affairs and its feverish efforts to seek sanctions against Syria from the UN Security Council,” the paper said, according to The Associated Press.

On his Facebook page, Ford said Thursday’s attack was not limited to eggs and tomatoes. “Protesters threw concrete blocks at the windows and hit the cars with iron bars. One person jumped on the hood of the car, tried to kick in the windshield and then jumped on the roof,” the envoy wrote. “Is that peaceful? I’d call it intolerant if not worse.”

The Syrian paper said Ford should expect further “unpleasant treatment” as long as his country interferes in Syrian affairs.

“As long as the ambassador believes that diplomacy is the art of instigation against national regimes, he should anticipate unpleasant treatment,” it said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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