Despite Assad concessions, protests continue in Syria

Clinton condemns violence against civilians, says Damascus must stop arbitrary arrests and torture.

Protesters in Syrian city of Homs 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Protesters in Syrian city of Homs 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Syrians took to the streets in large numbers again on Wednesday in the central city of Homs, where activists say more than 20 pro-democracy protesters have been shot dead since Monday by soldiers and irregular forces.
Protesters chanted for “the downfall of the regime,” in defiance of the heavy deployment of security forces and a warning by officials to stop all demonstrations.
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The protest also went ahead despite a concession by the government, which approved legislation on Tuesday to end the state of emergency in force for the past 48 years.
In the city of Banias, in what was seen as another attempt to mollify protesters, the chief of security police was sacked, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Five civilians were killed in Banias last week and residents identified Amjad Abbas, the fired police chief, as one of the officers seen beating a villager in the nearby town of Baida, the Observatory said, citing sources in Damascus.
Security forces had sealed off Banias last week after demonstrations against President Bashar Assad and an attack by irregular forces loyal to him on men guarding a Sunni mosque.
Protests continued overnight, including in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, where protesters called for freedom and for the overthrow of Assad’s rule, echoing the rallying cries of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
There were also sit-ins in Jabla on the coast, a women’s rally in Barzeh in Damascus, and a candlelight procession in Tel near the capital overnight.
In Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo, Assad’s irregular forces broke up a small demonstration at the city’s university, beating several students and arresting 37, a rights activist said.
Civic figures in Homs, which is known for its intellectuals and artists, have signed a declaration calling on the army“not to spill the blood of honorable Syrians” and denying official allegations that Salafist groups were operating there.
Emergency rule, in place since the Ba’ath Party seized power in a 1963 coup, gave security organs blanket power to stifle dissent through a ban on gatherings of over five people, and the ability to make arbitrary arrests and hold closed trials, lawyers say.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday condemned the violence in Syria and said the government there must stop the arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of prisoners.
“We are particularly concerned about the situation in Homs, where multiple reports suggest violence and casualties among both civilians and government personnel,” she said at a news conference. Independent confirmation was difficult because journalists were not being allowed access, she said.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
“The Syrian government must allow free movement and free access; it must stop the arbitrary arrest, detentions and torture of prisoners,” Clinton said.
She called on the Syrian government to cease violence and respond to “the legitimate issues that have been raised by the Syrian people seeking substantial and lasting reform.”
With Assad busy trying to quell an insurrection at home, it is doubtful whether Syria or Hezbollah have an interest in heating up tensions along Israel’s northern border, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Wednesday.
In one of the first statements by a government minister regarding the volatile situation in Syria, Ya’alon asserted confidence about the potentially volatile scenario.
“The IDF is ready for any scenario on the northern front,” he said, “although it is doubtful whether Assad or his ally in Lebanon has an interest in heating up the border and entering a battle with Israel at a time when the Syrian regime is busy trying to survive, and is cruelly turning its guns on its own people.”
Israel, Ya’alon said, “certainly has an interest in the calm being maintained.”
Ya’alon’s comments came during a tour of the Golan Heights with a group of Likud activists.
“The events that have taken place in recent weeks in Syria prove that the people there are thirsty for freedom and openness that the current regime in Damascus is unable to provide,” Ya’alon said.
He said that although nobody could say for sure whether Assad would be able to ride out the current storm, “one thing is clear: The threshold of fear in Syria has been broken, and what was, will not be again.”
Ya’alon said that Assad’s regime is a member of the “axis of evil,” and on a regular basis helps arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and terrorist groups in Iraq.
And, Ya’alon said, Bashar Assad, unlike his father, Hafez Assad, has never prepared his people for a peace agreement with Israel, and declares whenever he can that he will lead the rejectionist camp against Israel.
“And this is in parallel with his close connection with the Iranian government,” Ya’alon said. “Therefore, all talk of peace, and certainly peace in exchange for the Golan Heights, is at this stage nothing more than an illusion.”
Ya’alon said Israel should not develop a reflex whereby in exchange for eating “humous in Damascus,” Israel would immediately be willing to give up on territory and very significant security interests, especially when the other side has only paid “lip service” to the idea of peace.