Assad cedes ground to Islamists as calls to oust him grow

Expert says army’s support means Syrian regime is all but untouchable; decision reversed banning teachers from wearing niqab.

Assad 311 reuters (photo credit: reuters)
Assad 311 reuters
(photo credit: reuters)
Syrian President Bashar Assad made piecemeal concessions to Islamist opponents of his regime on Wednesday, amid growing calls from activists for a “Martyrs Week” to avenge the deaths of scores in protests nationwide in recent weeks.
The country’s Education Ministry reversed a decision on Wednesday that banned teachers from wearing the niqab – the full Islamic veil that reveals only a woman’s eyes – and authorities closed the country’s only casino.
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State-run media reported the decisions to allow teachers wearing the niqab to return to work. In July, authorities dismissed 1,200 female teachers wearing the niqab, in an apparent bid to maintain the country’s secular identity.
Casino Damascus – open only since January 1 – sparked an outcry from religious conservatives over state-sanctioned gambling. A day earlier, Assad’s government suspended all soccer matches, in an apparent bid to avoid gatherings that may turn into a rallying point for anti-government protests.
“The Syrian Revolution 2011” Facebook page called for protests across the country on Thursday and Friday, saying it is “Martyrs Week.”
By Wednesday, the page had more than 100,000 fans.
Prof. Moshe Maoz, a Syria expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he doesn’t expect the Assad regime to give in on anything beyond merely cosmetic reform: “He’s not going to give up.
His back is against the wall and he knows that if he falls there could be a massacre of him and his family. Survival is the key word,” Maoz said.
“The regime is strong, the opposition is not organized, except for the Muslim Brotherhood, but it isn’t very strong,” he said. “The army is still loyal to Assad, particularly since key officers are Alawite, or Sunnis or Christians allied with the Alawites, and they are not going to depose [the president] as did their Egyptian counterparts because they depend on the regime.”
Last week, the influential jihadist cleric Abu Basir al- Tartusi posted an article on his website titled, “What do the people know about the sectarian Syrian regime?” in which he claims the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, is “pagan” and disconnected from the rest of the Muslim world.
Tartusi, a Syrian, wrote that that disconnect allowed Assad’s Alawite forces to shoot at the mostly Sunni protesters without mercy and without remorse.
The Assad regime “has not done a thing for the sake of the homeland and the citizens after more than 40 years in power, other than opening more prisons,” he wrote, according to a translation distributed by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a press monitoring organization. Tartusi called on Syria’s Alawite community – comprising 12 percent of the population but dominating the army and security forces – to join the fight against the regime.
On Tuesday, two policemen were shot dead by unidentified gunmen near Damascus, state television said. The policemen were carrying out a “normal patrol” when the gunmen fired on them in the area of Kafar Batna, the channel said, without giving further details.
The area is near the Damascus suburb of Douma, where security forces shot dead at least eight protesters on Friday who took part in a large demonstration demanding political freedoms.
The same day, Syrian human rights activists told The New York Times they believed the death toll since the start of the unrest had reached at least 173 people, including 15 in Douma and 143 in Deraa, the southern city where the demonstrations began.
The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, working with the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, said it had documented 123 deaths, including 22 in Douma.
Both figures were based on data provided by doctors, victims’ family members and witnesses.
Authorities released Syrian human rights activist Suhair al-Atassi this week after twoand- a-half weeks in detention.
On Monday she spoke to Reuters of being dragged by her hair while protesting in Damascus in support of political prisoners: “It was surreal. I was dragged for what felt like the length of two streets. The apparatchiks looked at me as if I was not their compatriot.
They kept shouting that I was an Israeli spy.
“As I stood bruised in front of the judge at the Palace of Justice, I thought that the only progress the Syrian regime was making was in making up absurd charges,” she said. “No one has the right to be a master of a nation.”
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East