Syria acknowledges ‘legitimate demands’ as protests continue

May 13, 2011

A top government adviser said Friday that Syria plans to respond to what she called the legitimate demands of peaceful protesters, after Syrians again defied troops and tanks to demonstrate around the country, suggesting that the regime is starting to realize that its strategy of using overwhelming force to quell the stubborn opposition movement is failing.

Tens of thousands of Syrians poured onto the streets after Friday prayers in dozens of towns and villages in defiance of the crackdown, in which tanks have pounded neighborhoods where protests were held and thousands of people who had joined demonstrations have been detained.

Activists said six protesters were shot dead in three separate locations, and though the toll could rise as reports emerge from remote areas and late-running protests, it was far lower than those of previous Fridays, when scores of people died.

Government adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said the toll was lower because this week’s protests were peaceful.

“There is a difference between peaceful protesters and armed groups,” she said, speaking by telephone from Damascus. “We don’t crush peaceful protests by force. Our problem is with armed groups.”

“Protesters went to the streets around the country and protested by peaceful means,” she added. “There are peaceful protests demanding legitimate demands, and the government is going to respond to those demands.”

It was the first time the government has acknowledged that widespread and peaceful demonstrations have been taking place, indicating that it realizes the ineffectiveness of its massive security crackdown. Until now, the regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad has blamed all the demonstrations on “armed gangs” and Islamist extremists, summoning images of chaos and instability should it fall.

Hours earlier, Information Minister Adnan Hasan Mahmoud told a televised news conference that Syria plans to pursue “national dialogue” with opposition members, in another sign that the government is seeking to adopt a different response to the biggest challenge yet to nearly five decades of Baath Party rule.

But opposition leaders and activists immediately rejected that offer, saying they would talk to the government only if the tanks and troops are withdrawn and the thousands of detainees released.

“It’s a joke. How can you offer dialogue with a gun in your hand?” said Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan. “Everyone views this as a political maneuver, because there are no signals on the ground that the regime has any intention to start a dialogue.”

Mahmoud also announced that the army was withdrawing its troops from the besieged cities of Daraa and Baniyas. But Tarif said there was no sign of a pullout from either city.

Activists said that with many neighborhoods ringed by tanks and thousands of people in detention, it was inevitable that some of the protests Friday would be smaller than in past weeks.

Yet people nonetheless turned out in dozens of towns, including some of those that had experienced the worst violence of the crackdown.

One video posted on YouTube showed hundreds of people marching and chanting, “The people want to topple the regime” in the Bab al-Amr neighborhood of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, which was bombarded by artillery earlier this week.

In the besieged port city of Baniyas, cut off for a week since tanks rolled in and troops began rounding up all men between the ages of 18 and 45, a few dozen people attempted to stage a protest before they were dispersed by troops.

Worryingly for the government, there were reports of demonstrations in three Damascus neighborhoods, including the densely populated neighborhood of Mohajireen, where activists said several thousand people took to the streets. Video posted on YouTube also showed a small but determined group of protesters marching through a neighborhood of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

Damascus and Aleppo are the only two cities not to have witnessed any sizable anti-government demonstrations, which has prevented the protest movement from achieving the critical mass of the successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

But the ubiquity of the protests indicated that authorities are not close to quelling the unrest, said Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer who is in hiding in Damascus, and whose husband, activist Wael al-Hamidi, was detained this week.

“The regime doesn’t have any strategy except violence, and this strategy has failed,” she said. “So now they should start thinking of another.”

She and other activists are skeptical that the government is genuinely planning reforms, which have been promised before but never implemented. A day after the regime announced it was lifting the 48-year-old state of emergency, troops killed 110 demonstrators.

But Shaaban said that this time the government is serious. Committees have been formed to study new election and political party laws, she said, adding, “We are pressing ahead with these reforms.”

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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