Syrians rally amid heavy military presence
By Alice Fordham and Colum Lynch,
BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of reenergized opponents of the Syrian government gathered Friday for demonstrations on a second day marked by relatively low levels of violence, but the U.N. Security Council was unable to agree on a mission to monitor further implementation of a peace plan.
The protests that now habitually take place after Friday prayers were much anticipated this week, coming 36 hours after a cease-fire mandated in the plan put forward last month by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which also requires the government to allow peaceful demonstrations of dissent.
The plan has been endorsed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his allies in Russia and China, and Western nations that have called for him to step down. However, a heavy military presence Friday thwarted major protests in most cities, and eight civilians were killed across the country by security forces, according to a spokesman for the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights who uses the pseudonym Rami Abdulrahman.
The cease-fire was also marred by a skirmish in Idlib province near the Turkish border, although no casualties were reported there.
The plan’s requirements appeared to have been violated by armed members of the opposition as well as by security forces, with two soldiers reportedly killed in an attack near Hama. According to Abdulrahman, however, the number of casualties remained significantly lower than on the previous Friday — when dozens of people were killed — even with five times as many people demonstrating nationwide. The information was not possible to verify, as the Syrian government restricts journalists’ access to the country.
Differences at the U.N.
U.N. officials and Western diplomats had hoped that even a partial cease-fire would allow progress on the rest of Annan’s six-point proposal, which includes clauses obligating the Assad government to allow humanitarian aid, foreign journalists and U.N. monitors to enter Syria.
But the Security Council failed to agree Friday on a resolution that would include sending an advance team of up to 30 unarmed military observers to the country, with plans to increase the number to 250 later. The debate stalled as Syria’s ally Russia, which has previously vetoed resolutions on the country’s crisis, proposed less-stringent wording.
The major sticking point is a U.S.-backed provision that would require Syria to guarantee the monitors full freedom of movement and access, as well as unobstructed use of communications, according to a Security Council diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. Discussions were to resume Saturday.
“We know there have been differences — which they are trying to reconcile — with the language,” Ahmad Fawzi, Annan’s spokesman, said from Geneva.” But he added, “I think they will move fast because they know how important it is to get our guys on the ground.”
An observer mission would, he said, send a strong signal to both sides in the conflict, in which thousands of civilians, security troops and armed opponents of the government have died.
Aram Nerguizian, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that although the truce remains fragile, it could yet represent an opportunity. “The reality is that a lull in the violence is better than the alternative, because if you have a state of violence, both sides will continue to harden their tone and build up arms,” he said.
Heavy military presence
In Syria, activists described a much less combative atmosphere than has been typical in recent months, but noted the heavy military deployments and apparent efforts to curb demonstrations, particularly in urban areas.
“There are security forces in every part of Damascus, maybe double what I have ever seen before,” said Moaz, an independent journalist and activist in the capital who does not use his real name. Main roads were blocked in the city, he said, and protests in the Mezzeh and Kfar Sousa areas were broken up by gunfire and arrests.
Activists in Hama province reported that the main streets of the city of Hama were also blocked and that sound bombs, tear gas and live bullets were used to disperse demonstrations.
However, in the nearby rural town of Qalaat al-Madiq, which has seen intense fighting in recent weeks, soldiers allowed thousands of people to demonstrate and did not fire a shot, said Mousab Alhamadee, an activist in the area.
Moaz, the activist in Damascus, welcomed the prospect of an increased U.N. presence in Syria.
“If these guys from the U.N. enter Damascus,” he said, “they will be a big problem for the regime, because either the people will come out in big demonstrations, or security forces will open fire on the demonstrations, and they will record that in their reports.”
Lynch reported from the United Nations.
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