Syrian clashes leave at least 12 dead as government delays concessions

by editor | 28th March 2011 7:23 am

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• At least 12 people killed in Latakia as unrest spreads
• State news agency blames violence on outside forces

Katherine Marsh in Damascus and Saeed Kamali Dehghan
Syrian protesters in Cairo
Syrians demonstrate outside their embassy in Cairo yesterday in support of the protesters in their country. Photograph: AP

The Syrian army has been deployed in force in the port city of Latakia after two days of fierce anti-government protests in which at least 12 people were killed.
A government source blamed the deaths on “attacks by armed elements on the families and districts of Latakia”, according to the official Sana news agency. But activists accused the security forces of opening fire on protesters in the city, where they say the offices of the ruling Ba’ath party have been torched.
Latakia is a majority Sunni town 220 miles north of the capital, Damascus, and is home to the minority Alawi sect of President Bashar al-Assad, making unrest there particularly sensitive.On Sunday night, there were reports of gangs of young men, some armed with swords and hunting rifles, roaming through the seaside city and roughly questioning passersby.
In a move to placate protesters, authorities said they had decided to lift the emergency laws, but the absence of a timetable has been widely viewed as a delaying tactic by the government. The emergency laws restrict public gatherings and authorise arrests on the basis of threats to national security. Observers said significant changes were needed immediately to quell the spreading unrest. Until Friday, protesters had been concentrated in the southern Hauran region around the city of Deraa.
“This is a meaningless pledge to remove the emergency law when people can be detained by other laws,” said Rime Allaf, a Syrian analyst at London’s Chatham House. “Everybody is waiting for the president to speak and take some steps to tell the people he is in control.”
Mohammed Habash, a Syrian MP, told Associated Press that politicians discussed the emergency and Assad would make an announcement on Tuesday. He offered no further details.
Assad’s silence has angered many Syrians, who feel he has not acknowledged the seriousness of the crisis facing the regime’s 43-year rule. “During the whole turmoil in the Middle East, he has not come out and spoken to us,” said one resident in Damascus. “Now many people have been killed here and he has still not personally said a word.”
In further moves to quell unrest, the government is this week expected to resign, announce an amendment to article eight of the constitution which defines the Ba’ath party as the “leading party in the society and the state”, and introduce a law preventing the detention of reporters.
On Friday, the Reuters bureau chief was deported, while scores of local journalists have reported being intimidated or detained. The lack of information is causing confusion in the country, with state media broadcasting the government line that has repeatedly blamed the past 10 days of unrest on outside forces.
“They are waging a war of propaganda,” said a 32-year-old Syrian. “I am scared that many will choose to believe it. Meanwhile, it makes those who realise just angrier and less willing to accept anything they say.”
Syria, which has a Sunni majority, is ruled by the minority Alawite sect. Fears of sectarian strife are one of the main stabilising factors for Christians, Druze and other minority groups. Despite the government’s claims, largely nationalist slogans have been heard.
Meanwhile, reports said about 100 lawyers had marched in the southern Druze town of Sweida, calling for an investigation into the deaths of Syrians and an end to the crackdown in Deraa. Local human rights activists say more than 100 people may have been killed since the start of protests on 18 March.
Analysts say that time is running out for Assad to announce reforms to redeem a regime that is looking increasingly weak and confused. “People were not calling for revolution at first. They were calling for more freedom, something which the president can still deliver,” said Allaf.
But others say there may be no soft landing. “There are many who perhaps rightly believe that, if you give an inch, demands will grow and soon there will be nothing left,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University.
Iran, troubled by protests in an ally country, has portrayed Syrian pro-democracy protesters as “agitators”. Iran has spoken out in support of demonstrators in Bahrain and Yemen, and praised Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans for their democracy-seeking movements, but has found itself in a peculiar situation with the unrest in Syria. Iran’s Irna state news agency reported from Damascus that a group of “agitators” had confessed on Syrian state television they had been hired by Israel to create disturbance and insecurity in Syria.
Irna quoted Syria’s Sana state news agency as saying: “This group of people travelled a while ago to Israel and have been paid to send photos and videos taken from the unrest in Syria to foreigners.”
Iran’s opposition says the reaction of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government to the protests in Syria showed the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which has praised the pro-democracy movements abroad, except Syria, while refusing to allow a peaceful demonstration at home.
Israel said on Sunday it was worried that Iran might be participating in the suppression of protesters in Syria.
Katherine Marsh is a pseudonym for a journalist living in Damascus

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