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Syrian Army Crackdown Spreads to Damascus, Storming the Suburb of Saqba, After Withdrawing from Dera'a

May 5, 2011

Army crackdown spreads to Damascus

France 24, May 5, 2011

By Alexander TURNBULL / Alix LE BOURDON (video)

News Wires (text)  


Syrian troops stormed the Damascus suburb of Saqba early on Thursday, making numerous arrests after anti-government protests last week, even as tanks appeared to withdraw from the southern rebel stronghold of Dera'a.

Syrian army units have begun withdrawing from Deraa, a military source said on Thursday, even as soldiers stormed areas across the country arresting hundreds in an attempt to crush a six-week-old pro-democracy uprising.

President Bashar al-Assad, facing the most serious challenge to his 11-year authoritarian rule, had ordered the army 10 days ago to enter Dera'a, where demonstrations calling for more freedoms and later for his overthrow started in March.

Activists and residents said soldiers, backed by tanks, had shelled and machine-gunned the old quarter of the city and rounded people up in mass arrests.

The state news agency SANA quoted an official military source as saying the army had completed its mission, arresting elements of terrorist groups and restoring “security, peace and stability”.

Two witnesses who were heading out of the city told Reuters that around 30 tanks on armoured carriers had left the city heading north. They said Syrian army units backed with armour remained deployed at several entrances to the city.

Elsewhere, residents said soldiers had made arrests in the Damascus suburb of Saqba and tightened sieges on two defiant urban centres ahead of the Muslim day of prayer on Friday.

Muslim prayer is the only time Syrians are permitted to gather legally, and hence the day of the biggest demonstrations.

A female resident, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters that hundreds of soldiers in combat gear had broken into houses and made arrests overnight in Saqba, where thousands had demanded Assad’s overthrow last week.

“They cut off communications before they came in. There is no resistance. The demonstrations in Saqba have been peaceful. Scores of people have been arrested,” she said.

Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Insan human rights group, said at least 260 people had been detained in Saqba. He earlier told Reuters more than 800 people had been rounded up in Deraa since the army moved in.

Siege in Rastan and Banias

In a sign that Assad was further widening the use of the military to crush demonstrations against his autocratic rule, tanks and armoured vehicles deployed around the town of Rastan, and army units set up checkpoints in Sunni districts in Banias.

Armed troops also deployed in the Damascus suburb of Erbin and in the town of Tel, north of the capital, where security forces arrested at least 80 men, women and children, the human rights organisation Sawasiah said.

“Five men over 70 years old were arrested. No one is escaping beatings and insults. Two mothers were taken as hostages because security forces could not find their sons,” Sawasiah said in a statement on the arrests in Tel.

Rights groups say the army, security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad have killed at least 560 civilians since the protests erupted in Deraa on March 18. Officials give a much lower death toll and say half those killed have been soldiers or police.

Before the army division led by Assad’s brother Maher stormed Deraa, Assad had relied mainly on other security forces and secret police to confront the mass demonstrations.

“Assad’s decision to use the army is pretty much the utmost escalation of force he can muster and a clear signal that he has no interest in any reconciliation,” said an Arab government official monitoring the situation in Syria.

Washington, which had been rehabilitating its ties with Assad in recent years, has gradually intensified its condemnation of the violence in Syria, most recently calling the army’s assault in Deraa “barbaric”.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Thursday that Washington and Rome had discussed sanctions against the Syrian government for its suppression of unrest, including suspending cooperation talks with the European Union.

Last week, the United States imposed sanctions against leading Syrian figures including relatives of Assad, and the EU agreed in principle to impose an arms embargo.

Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam in a country where the majority are Sunnis. His father Hafez ruled Syria for 30 years, and was succeeded on his death by Bashar.

The elder Assad extended Alawite control of the army, which is now led by mostly Alawite officers and effectively controlled by Maher al-Assad, military experts say.

The army and pervasive security apparatus underpin the power structure in Syria, fulcrum of several Middle Eastern conflicts. The ruling hierarchy has an anti-Israel alliance with Iran, but has kept the Golan Heights frontier with the Jewish state quiet since a ceasefire brokered by the United States in 1974.


‘When has this regime ever been legitimate?’ says Syrian activist Suhair Al-Atassi

FRANCE 24 talked to activist Suhair Al-Atassi about the current situation.

By FRANCE 24 (text)  

‘When has this regime ever been legitimate?’ says Syrian activist Syrian authorities have toughened their crackdown on the anti-regime uprising that has seen protesters take to the streets calling for greater freedom over the last six weeks.

Arrested several times in the past, frequently harassed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Syrian civil rights activist Suhair Atassi is in hiding in Syria, but refuses to remain silenced. Contacted by FRANCE 24, she said she has received death threats over the past few months: “Whether they’re direct or indirect, they’re are always very clear.” Atassi also said she is used to the threats, since “the regime always operated in this way, long before the anti-regime uprising started”. In her interview with FRANCE 24, Atassi talks about the crackdown in Syria, where the authorities are trying to stamp out a movement of protesters calling for greater freedom and democracy.

FRANCE 24: Could you describe the current atmosphere in Syria?

Suhair Atassi: The crackdown is getting worse. We’ve reached the nightmarish levels of the 1980s, when the government crackdown was ferocious and deadly. When they are not being killed, people are being arrested in the street, in front of their home or at their workplace. I’ve been told that sometimes the authorities send around 40 armed men to arrest one person. “We’re here to arrest those asking for more freedom,” they dare to say. At that point, these are no longer arrests; they’re kidnappings. People’s homes are invaded, women and children are taken hostage, because the authorities are not satisfied with arresting an activist – they take the whole family. This is going on in all regions of the country. President Bashar al-Assad said that his government’s priority was ensuring that there is enough baby formula, because that’s more important than freedom. Today he’s doing the opposite: depriving the children of Daraa not only of freedom, but also of milk, since he’s starving the city.

FRANCE 24: Could the crackdown succeed in eliminating the movement entirely?

S.A.: There won’t be any turning back now. A young Syrian university professor recently told me that a population that does not see its revolution through to the end is digging its own grave. We cannot allow ourselves to betray the martyrs who have fallen since the start of the uprising. Even if the regime steps up the crackdown even further, we will not stop in the middle of the road we’re on.

FRANCE 24: What do you make of the international reactions to what’s going on in Syria?

S.A.: We’re stunned by the leeway given to Bashar al-Assad, under the pretext that he does not have all the power in Damascus. Even if that may possibly be the case, I personally don’t believe it. I also reject the commentators who say that the Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy, in the wake of the deadly operations it carried out against civilians. I ask: since when has this regime ever been legitimate? Have we forgotten that it is based on nepotism and that the constitution was modified in five minutes? By starving the Syrian people, by storming the cities and bombing the protesters, this regime has shown its true colours.


SYRIA Army crackdown spreads to Damascus

SYRIA Amid mass arrests, defiant protesters vow to press on

SYRIA France calls for EU sanctions targeting Syria's Assad

SYRIA Syrian opposition vows to pursue protests

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