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In Syria, protesters are defiant despite setbacks

By Alice Fordham,

DOUMA, Syria — Hundreds of government troops controlled the mostly deserted streets of this suburban area east of Damascus on Tuesday, crouching behind sandbags and sternly manning checkpoints. After a week of fighting, the army defectors who had been challenging them have fled to the countryside, hundreds of young men have been arrested, and many families have left.

But unarmed government opponents in Douma vowed to keep protesting until the fall of President Bashar al-Assad, staging a demonstration at the funeral of four men killed in fighting last week despite the shift back to army control.

“We must pray from the depths of our heart to be victorious,” cried one speaker, his voice rising over a crowd of several hundred people, mostly men, who had gathered in the evening in a square outside the Great Mosque in Douma, one of several places on the fringes of the capital that witnessed the recent violence. “If he doesn’t say that he will give up power, we will slaughter him,” the speaker shouted, referring to Assad.

A drummer at his side played faster and faster as chants echoed around the square, calling for Assad’s execution, praising the armed defectors known as the Free Syrian Army and saluting the nearby areas of Irbin and Saqba, which have been shelled intermittently in the past week. “God make us victorious!” the crowd cried as the drumming reached a feverish speed.

That demonstration will be followed by other, larger ones, vowed participants who said they had been rallying against the government for almost a year, despite often being arrested or injured by security forces. Earlier in the day, a member of the local branch of the opposition Local Coordination Committees network explained that several hundred members of the Free Syrian Army had been protecting protesters in Douma, Saqba and nearby areas for months.

Last week, the activist said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was recently released from prison and feared re-arrest, the army surrounded Douma and began raiding houses and arresting people while shelling targeted Saqba and Irbin. According to him, the crackdown was triggered by a clash between the Free Syrian Army and security forces at a local funeral last week.

So far, protests in the central areas of the capital have remained small and sporadic, and many residents still appear to support Assad, particularly those from the middle classes, who have benefited from economic liberalization.

But the steady escalation of protests and clashes on the city’s eastern edge, home to many of its poorer neighborhoods, has contributed to a growing sense that Damascus is not immune to the unrest convulsing much of the rest of Syria. Many say they fear a replication here of the violence that has engulfed such battlefield cities as Homs and Hama.

“The crisis has affected not just me, but the whole Syrian people,” said a sweet-shop worker in the central Damascus neighborhood of Midan, which has been the scene of frequent, if usually quickly stifled protests. “It has affected the feeling of security of the people,” added the man, who gave only his first name, Ziad. “I used to stay open late, and now I don’t, for security reasons.”

A sheik in a mosque in Midan, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said crime had increased in the city since the security forces began focusing on preventing demonstrations.

“I want the country to go back to security and establish justice,” he said. “People got to this stage because of tyranny, so people are asking nothing more than justice,” he added.

Another activist in Midan said that as weapons have proliferated, gunfights sometimes break out in the streets at night, something unthinkable in Damascus a year ago.

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