Shooting Erupts in Hama Before Arab Visit

December 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Mariam Karouny

2011-12-24T130622Z_661044096_GM1E7CO1MID01_RTRMADP_3_SYRIA

Men pray next to the coffins of people killed at security sites on Friday in two car bomb attacks, at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus December 24,2011 in this handout photograph released by Syria’s national news agency SANA. The United Nations expressed grave concern about twin suicide car bombings in Damascus and condemned the attacks that killed 44 people and lent a grim new face to the uprising in Syria.

REUTERS/Sana/Handout

BEIRUT (Reuters) – At least seven people were wounded on Wednesday in the Syrian city of Hama when security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse a protest against President Bashar al-Assad, just a day before a visit by Arab peace monitors, a rights group said.

Live pictures on al Jazeera television showed gunfire and black smoke rising above a street in Hama as dozens of protesters chanted: “Where are the Arab monitors?”

Arab League monitors checking if Syria is ending its violent crackdown on popular unrest are due to visit Hama on Thursday. In its footage, al Jazeera showed one man bleeding from the neck as others shouted in the background.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the protesters were heading towards Orontes square in the city centre for a sit-in at the symbolic location where demonstrations were crushed earlier this year.

Security forces were not visible in the Jazeera footage. Unarmed protesters, some masked, were heard shouting “Assad forces are shooting us.” The protesters then began chanting: “Freedom for ever” and “We will have our revenge on you Bashar.”

Reuters could not verify the details as Syria has banned most foreign media from the country.

Hama, 240 km (150 miles) north of Damascus, has particular resonance for Syrians. The city was the site of the biggest massacre in the country’s modern history.

Troops overran Hama in 1982 to put down the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which made its last stand there. Up to 30,000 people were killed, many of them killed in an army bombardment or executed in the streets by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s’ father, the late Hafez al-Assad. Parts of its old city were razed to the ground.

Twenty-nine years later Hama demonstrators demanding the overthrow of Bashar still revile the memory of his father, who died in 2000 after ruling Syria for three decades.

FREEDOM CALL

In the Jazeera footage, the protesters began cursing Hafez’s soul immediately after the gunfire was heard, before rushing to hide in alleyways.

A few looked out to shout a defiant freedom call before disappearing into hiding again. The shooting intensified, then one man shouted out that snipers were now operating in the area. Dozens of men squeezed themselves in an alley, chanting anti-Assad slogans.

“There is no turning back from the revolution,” they shouted.

Hama was among the hardest hit cities in an escalation of military attacks against urban centers where anti-Assad protests had been held.

In August, tanks attacked Hama for ten days, provoking Arab and Western outrage, after weeks of protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people to Orontes Square. Authorities said the operation was necessary to cleanse the city of “terrorists” according to the wishes of Hama inhabitants.

On Wednesday, part of an Arab League team went to a flashpoint area in the city of Homs but some of their planned tour was blocked when gunfire erupted, activists said.

Residents of Homs’s Baba Amr neighborhood initially refused to cooperate when the monitors arrived with an army escort and the team withdrew. But activists said a smaller group of monitors returned without the officer and were escorted by residents and activists on a tour of the turbulent district.

But the monitors could not enter an area where residents said they believed detainees were being hidden because gunfire erupted. It was not clear where the shooting came from.

“Residents were accompanying the team to the area to show them where they believe detainees are being held when suddenly there was gunfire near the checkpoint,” said Rami Abdelrahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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Assad: Syria Won’t Stop Fight

August 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Tuesday his forces would continue to pursue “terrorist groups” after Turkey pressed him to end a military assault aimed at crushing protests against his rule.

Syria “will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and the security of the citizens,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

“But (Syria) is also determined to continue reforms … and is open to any help offered by friendly and brotherly states.”

While the two men held talks in Damascus, Syrian forces killed at least 30 people and moved into a town near the Turkish border, an activist group said.

The National Organization for Human Rights said most of the fatalities occurred when troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles overran villages north of Hama, while four were killed in Binnish, 30 km (20 miles) from the border with Turkey.

Washington expressed disappointment at Assad’s latest comments and said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expected to talk to Davutoglu after his meetings in Syria.

“It is deeply regrettable that President Assad does not seem to be hearing the increasingly loud voice of the international community,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters when asked about the comment.

She refused to comment directly on a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable quoted by McClatchy newspapers last week describing Assad in unflattering terms, calling him “neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father” (former president Hafez al-Assad).

Despite the growing international condemnation, including a sudden wave of Arab criticism, Assad’s forces pursued an offensive in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, residents said.

Activists say at least 1,600 civilians have died since the uprising against Assad erupted in March, making it one of the bloodiest of the upheavals sweeping the Arab world.

Davutoglu held six hours of meetings with Syrian officials, including a two-hour session alone with Assad.

He told reporters on his return to Ankara that Turkey had demanded Damascus stop killing civilians and said his government would maintain contacts with all parts of Syrian society.

Davutoglu said Turkey hoped for a peaceful transition in Syria resulting in the Syrian people deciding their own future.

Neighboring Turkey has grown increasingly critical of the violence but earned a sharp rebuke on Sunday when an Assad adviser said Syria would not accept interference in its affairs.

Syria has faced nearly five months of protests against Assad’s 11-year rule, inspired by Arab revolts which overthrew leaders in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.

Last week Assad sent troops and tanks to quell the mostly Sunni Muslim city of Hama in central Syria and the army launched a similar assault on Sunday against Deir al-Zor.

An armored column also pushed toward the center of the city on Tuesday, with troops storming houses and making arrests in the provincial capital of an oil region bordering Iraq’s Sunni heartland, a resident said.

“They are now about one kilometer from downtown. When they finish with one district, they move to another,” said the resident, who gave his name as Iyad.

Increasing the pressure on Assad, Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia issued a blunt warning that he risked turmoil unless he stopped the bloodshed and adopted reforms.

Kuwait and Bahrain followed the kingdom in recalling their ambassadors.

The withdrawal of envoys left Assad with few diplomatic friends bar Iran. Western states have imposed sanctions on his top officials, while states with close ties to Damascus such as Russia and Turkey have warned Assad he is running out of time.

Nevertheless, no country has proposed military action such as that launched against Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi.

ASSAULT

In Deir al-Zor, a resident said on Monday 65 people had been killed since tanks and armored vehicles barreled into the city, 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Damascus on Sunday.

The British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said among the dead were a mother and her two children, an elderly woman and a girl. Syria has expelled most independent media since the revolt began, making it hard to confirm accounts.

Syrian authorities have denied that any Deir al-Zor assault took place. They say they have faced attacks since the protests erupted in March, blaming armed saboteurs for civilian deaths and accusing them of killing 500 security personnel.

State television broadcast footage on Sunday of mutilated bodies floating in the Orontes river in Hama, saying 17 police had been ambushed and killed in the central Syrian city.

The official SANA news agency said on Monday the military was starting to pull out of Hama after it said they had helped restore order. Residents said there were still tanks in parts of the city and security forces were making arrests.

About 1,500 people were detained in Hama’s Jarajima district and troops killed three civilians, the Observatory said.

Activists say at least 130 people were killed in Hama, where Assad’s father crushed an armed Islamist uprising in 1982, and one group has put the death toll at over 300.

Like most of Syria, ruled by Assad’s minority Alawite family, Hama and Deir al-Zor are mainly Sunni cities, and the crackdowns there resonate with Sunnis, who form the majority in the region and govern most Arab countries.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Ankara bureau; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Analysis: Syria Neighbors Fear Future Without Assad Family

April 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Samia Nakhoul

BEIRUT (Reuters) – From Israel to Iran, Syria’s neighbors are starting to contemplate the possibility of a future without the Assad family as Lords of Damascus, and, whether friends or foes, some don’t like what they see.

Indeed, some are in denial about what they are witnessing.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite movement widely seen as an Iranian proxy in the Middle East, purports to believe the government of President Bashar al-Assad is putting down an insurrection by armed gangs of Salafi or Sunni Muslim fanatics.

In its report of the Syrian army’s assault on the southern city of Deraa, epicenter of the revolt which began last month, Al Manar, Hezbollah’s television, stuck to the official version that the army responded to citizens’ pleas to put an end to “killings and terrorizing operations by extremist groups.”

Hezbollah greeted with glee uprisings that overthrew dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and championed the rights of Bahraini protesters against Saudi military intervention to quash Shi’ite demonstrations.

But it is distinctly unenthusiastic about the risk of losing the support of a Syrian government which is not only its main protector but the conduit for arms supplies from Iran.

Tehran, which regards Syria as a close ally in a mainly Sunni-dominated region suspicious of non-Arab Shi’ite Iran, has called the revolt in Syria “a Zionist plot.”

Yet Israel too seems deeply uneasy about any change in the status quo.

Although they are still formally at war, Syria under the current president and his late father, Hafez al-Assad, has maintained a stable border with the Jewish state since 1973 even though Israel still occupies the Golan Heights.

Fear of Islamists

Israel’s fear — voiced more openly by commentators plugged in to its security establishment than by politicians — is that a successful uprising might replace firm Baath party rule with a more radical government, or one less able or willing to keep radical forces on a leash.

Although Assad sponsors Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he has played a cautious hand.

Behind the strident Arabist rhetoric and ties with Tehran he has kept the option of peace with Israel in play and sought acceptance by Western powers.

“The implications are enormous and totally unpredictable,” said Lebanon-based Middle East analyst Rami Khouri.

“What makes Syria distinctive is that the regime and the system have close structural links with every conflict or player in the region: Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, America, Iraq, Turkey. In all these (cases) there is a Syrian link.”

Demonstrations have spread across the country and grown in intensity, he said, and protesters who began calling for reform of the system were now demanding “the overthrow of the regime.”

At the back of many minds is the experience of Iraq, plunged into years of chaos and sectarian savagery after the US-led invasion in 2003 and removal of Saddam Hussein.

“Everybody in the region is concerned about the destabilization of Syria, even those who don’t like Assad, because there is one thing he brings to the region: a certain kind of predictability and stability,” Khouri said.

“He maintained the truce along the Syrian-Israeli border, people know how his government behaves. Nobody knows what will happen afterwards.”

Alex Fishman, a military affairs journalist for Israel’s best-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth, summed up Israeli apprehension after the Syrian army stormed into Deraa.

“However odd it may sound, the Israeli establishment has a certain sentiment for the Assad family. They kept their promises throughout the years and even talked about an arrangement with Israel on their terms,” he wrote.

“It’s hard to part with a comfortable old slipper, but the top members of the political and security establishment believe that the Syrian regime, in its current format, will change within weeks or months,” Fishman said.

He added: “The sole interest guiding Israel’s conduct is: if what is happening in Syria will ultimately weaken the Damascus-Iran-Hezbollah axis — we’ll come out ahead.”

For Hezbollah and Iran, losing Assad would certainly be a big blow.

“If it (Syria) splits into mini-satellite states that will be bad news for everybody,” Khouri said, suggesting that as in Iraq this might provide an opening for al Qaeda militants.

Across the border in Lebanon, arena of a sectarian civil war in 1975-90 that sucked in regional and world powers and left Syria in control for 29 years, people are also worried.

Any prospect of a new sharpening of tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Arabs and Kurds, or Christians and Muslims, all simmering across the region after being brought to the boil by Iraq, produces shudders.

“I don’t think any wise man is not worried about what happens in Syria because it is a neighbor,” said Talal Salman, editor of Beirut’s daily as-Safir.

“Any earthquake in Syria will shake Lebanon with its fragile make-up. Syria’s stability is in our interest.”

For now, Assad has decided to follow in the footsteps of his father and resort to military force, not reform, to put down the protests at a cost so far of more than 400 lives, according to human rights groups.

Monday’s deployment of tanks in Deraa looks like an indicator of what is to come. A source close to the Syrian military said Assad and his security establishment had taken a decision to wage war on protesters across the country.

But Ali al-Atassi, a prominent Syrian activist whose father was a former president jailed for 22 years by the elder Assad, said “another Hama” was impossible.

In 1982, Hafez al-Assad sent in the army to crush an armed lslamist uprising, killing of up to 30,000 people.

“Syria has reached a turning point. It cannot go back to where it was,” said Atassi.

He said the Western habit of accommodating dictatorships in return for stability was no longer valid.

“In Tunis, Egypt and elsewhere for years, Arab leaders and the West gave the Arab people a binary choice: stability or chaos; despotism or Islamism.

“After what happened in Tunis and Egypt, we discovered that there is a third option which is the democratic way. Sure, the Islamists will play a role in it, but they will not have the leading role,” Atassi said.

While many analysts argue that life after Assad would be hazardous or that he may prove impossible to remove, others say a relatively smooth transition is imaginable over time because Damascus has institutions that can shoulder responsibility.

They include the army, whose backbone is Sunni although key posts are controlled by members of Assad’s Alawite minority.

What most observers now dismiss is the possibility of reforms substantial enough to meet popular demands.

Even if Assad wanted to enact wide-scale reforms, they argue, he lacks the power to prevail over entrenched interests in the security forces and military intelligence.

“He is the prisoner of a certain structure and at the same time part of it,” Atassi said.

“The next 2-3 weeks are really critical. They will determine whether he will remain in power or whether his regime will collapse,” Khouri told Reuters.

(editing by Paul Taylor)

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