With flag rally, Syria papers over rifts


Thousands of supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad, carry a gigantic 2,500 yard (2,300 meter) Syrian flag, as they march along a highway during a demonstration to support their president, in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday June 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman) (Muzaffar Salman/AP)
June 15, 2011

Tens of thousands of people gathered in a Damascus suburb Wednesday to help unfurl an enormous Syrian flag in a mass display of support for embattled President Bashar al-Assad.

The 18-yard-wide flag, which stretched 1.4 miles along Mezzeh highway in the capital, was considered an attempt by the government to project a sense of unity among Syria’s 23 million people as it expands a military crackdown on dissent elsewhere in the country.

The state-backed rally was organized by Syrian Youth, a movement of young people sympathetic to the Assad government. The group sent text messages to millions of cellphone users Monday urging them to support a united Syria and to “contribute” by attending the unveiling of the flag.

Security around Mezzeh was tight throughout the day, with soldiers manning checkpoints at one nearby entrance to Damascus and a rocket-equipped military helicopter hovering overhead. Pro-government songs blared from ambulances and military vehicles, and radio stations that normally broadcast Western music were commandeered for live phone-ins from Syrians praising the government and denouncing outside interference in Syrian affairs.

Rally participants shouted, “Bashar, who is like you?” in support of the president, who is facing the greatest threat yet to his 11-year rule from the growing movement advocating his ouster.

SANA, the state-owned news agency, reported that “overwhelming national sentiment prevailed [among] the crowds of young people as the Syrian flag was raised.” About 8,000 young people were bused in from provincial towns to attend the event, according to the agency.

As the government pursues its crackdown on protesters across the religiously diverse country, some observers have voiced concern that the threat of civil strife is growing. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect of Islam and is popular among Christians and other minorities who fear a change in the country’s delicate ethnic and religious balance.

The government’s support of the flag rally Wednesday suggests it may recognize worries about hardening sectarian divisions and the potential for civil war and territorial breakup.

In Libya, anti-government elements have rallied around the monarchical flag that flew over the country before Moammar Gaddafi seized power in a coup in 1969. By contrast, one organizer of the Damascus flag rally was quoted by a local news agency as saying, “There will be no flag raised in Syria except the Syrian flag.”

Although the unrest that has swept across the country over the past three months has damaged the government, Assad still commands genuine support among wide swaths of the population, observers say.

Damascus residents, in particular, have largely held aloof from the violent uprising that activists and rights groups say has killed more than 1,300 people. The city is home to a wealthy, predominantly Sunni merchant class, with many businesses linked to the government.

“The residents of Damascus are traditionally the last into a revolt,” said a Syrian analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

On Wednesday, a Syrian magazine reported that Assad may deliver a public address to the country on Sunday.

Starr is a special correspondent.

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