WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama on Friday condemned an “abhorrent” crackdown in Syria which killed 24 demonstrators and any violence by protesters following reports of deaths among security forces.
“I strongly condemn the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government today and over the past few weeks,”
Obama said in a written statement, the latest in a flurry of US rebukes of Damascus.
“I also condemn any use of violence by protesters.
“I call upon the Syrian authorities to refrain from any further violence against peaceful protesters.”
Obama also called for an end to arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of prisoners and said the Syrian authorities should allow independent verification of recent political unrest in the country.
The head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights said that at least 24 protesters were killed on Friday as anti-regime demonstrations and clashed with security forces raged around Syria.
The official SANA news agency said 19 members of the security forces were killed and 75 were wounded by “armed groups” in the southern town of Daraa.
President Bashar al-Assad, under popular pressure to introduce major political reforms and end emergency powers which give security services great leeway to crush dissent, had ordered a probe into previous protest casualties in Daraa.
The agricultural city of Daraa has been the focal point of anti-government protests marred by deadly violence that human rights activists blame on the security services and the government blames on “armed” groups.
“It was hard to know who was who because those ‘Amn’ (security) forces do not wear uniforms,” the witness, a Westerner living near the Rifai mosque in the Kfar Souseh district of the Syrian capital, told Reuters.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; editing by Mark Heinrich)
While the number of protesters, said by some opposition activists to be in the hundreds of thousands, could not be independently confirmed, the size of the protests and their level of coordination suggest that Syria’s fragmented opposition movement is reaching new levels of coherence and organization.
The deadliest clashes were in the southern city of Dara’a, where security forces opened fire on demonstrators, witnesses said. A Syrian human rights activist said 21 deaths had been confirmed, but that figure was likely to rise.
The government, meanwhile, said its security forces had been fired on by armed groups in Dara’a. The Interior Ministry said 19 police officers and members of security forces were killed, in addition to several civilians, the government news agency, Sana, reported. It was the first time the government had made a substantial claim of deaths.
The numbers reported by either side were difficult to verify. Foreign news media have not been permitted to travel outside Damascus, the capital, and state security forces have cordoned off the towns and suburbs where the largest protests took place.
There were also protests on Friday in Damascus, in a suburb where at least 15 protesters were killed by security forces last Friday, and in Kurdish towns in the east.
In Washington, President Obama condemned what he called
“the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government today and over the past few weeks.” He also condemned “any use of violence by protesters.”
Ausama Monajed, a London-based political activist who is in frequent touch with protesters in Dara’a and other cities, said that the protest movement had gained enormous momentum and confidence over the past week. Though Syria lacks a natural mass gathering point like Tahrir Square in Egypt, he said, he estimated that across Syria, total numbers of protesters might add up to hundreds of thousands.
He called the attack on protesters in Dara’a “a massacre.” He feared that the government might be trying to make an example of Dara’a, where the protests began three weeks ago after a group of teenagers was arrested for writing antigovernment graffiti, as it did with Hama in 1982.
“What happened is that after Friday Prayers, the marchers started to chant, ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ and security forces opened fire,” Mr. Monajed said in a phone interview. “When the protesters tried to collect the dead and wounded, the security forces opened fire again.”
There were reports that security forces had closed the hospitals, possibly to forestall further protests at funerals on Saturday, Mr. Monajed said. According to Islamic custom, the dead are buried as soon as possible, and the funerals of protesters in recent weeks have turned into political demonstrations.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident who lives in Maryland and has helped organize the protests, said that according to his contacts in Dara’a, 100 may have been killed there and as many as 500 wounded.
Though Syria’s protest movement is far more decentralized than it has been in Egypt and Bahrain, Mr. Abdulhamid said, its strength is growing.
“Each community has its own uprising,” he said. “Every week the regime is being forced closer to its endgame.”
The killings in Dara’a on Friday, he said, may have been an attempt by the government “to send a lesson to other cities,” the way Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, massacred at least 10,000 Muslim Brotherhood members in Hama in 1982 to strike fear in Islamists across the country.
Amr al-Azm, a Syrian historian, cautioned that it was not yet clear how broad support for the protest movement was. He said the greatest numbers of protesters were poor, semirural and young, and that the country’s powerful Sunni upper-middle class had not yet decided where it stood.
“The urban upper-middle classes feel uncomfortable with these people,” he said. “The thing about Syria is that in order for these protests to reach the critical mass you need to achieve real change, you have to tap into the merchant classes of Damascus and Aleppo.”
He said that group was unhappy with the government but also concerned about stability.
There were also protests on Friday in the eastern Kurdish areas, two days after Mr. Assad sought to quell unrest there by offering Syrian nationality to the estimated 200,000 Kurds, formerly classified by the government as stateless.
Kurdish leaders and human rights activists rejected the offer.
Hakeem Bashar, a Kurdish leader, said that thousands of people had demonstrated in Qamishli, one of the largest towns in the Kurdish northeast.
“We want all of the demands that other Syrians in other parts of the country are making,” Dr. Bashar said. “These are national demands, but we are demanding them too because this is our country. We are Kurds, but we are also Syrians.”
Security forces have maintained a heavy presence in Damascus. Six buses carrying uniformed and plainclothes officers arrived at the Al Rifai mosque, a center of protests last week, during Friday Prayer, said Wissam Tarif, a human rights activist, pulling open its doors and beating worshipers as they exited.
Security forces scuffled with protesters and hauled others into the waiting buses as they chanted “Freedom! Freedom!”
Villagers outside of Damascus marched toward Douma, a village where security forces fired on demonstrators last week, killing at least 15 people.
US President Obama condemn the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government
“Throughout this time of upheaval, the American people have heard the voices of the Syrian people, who have demonstrated extraordinary courage and dignity, and who deserve a government that is responsive to their aspirations,” Obama said in a statement.
The full statement:
I strongly condemn the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government today and over the past few weeks. I also condemn any use of violence by protesters.
The United States extends our condolences to the families and loved ones of all the victims. I call upon the Syrian authorities to refrain from any further violence against peaceful protesters.
Furthermore, the arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture of prisoners that has been reported must end now, and the free flow of information must be permitted so that there can be independent verification of events on the ground.
Throughout this time of upheaval, the American people have heard the voices of the Syrian people, who have demonstrated extraordinary courage and dignity, and who deserve a government that is responsive to their aspirations.
Syrians have called for the freedoms that individuals around the world should enjoy: freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; and a government that is transparent and free of corruption. These rights are universal, and they must be respected in Syria.
Until now, the Syrian government has not addressed the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. Violence and detention are not the answer to the grievances of the Syrian people. It is time for the Syrian government to stop repressing its citizens and to listen to the voices of the Syrian people calling for meaningful political and economic reforms.
By: Tariq Alhomayed
The Iranian Ambassador in Damascus, Ahmed al Moussawi, has announced his country’s support for the Syrian regime, which is normal. However, what was not normal was his attack on the Syrian people, who came out to demonstrate in several Syrian cities, demanding reform and the ending of the longest-standing emergency law in the region.
The Iranian Ambassador, speaking at a conference entitled “The Islamic Awakening and Confronting Strife in Syria“, which was being held in Damascus, said that “the events taking place in Syria have been prepared and planned by enemies to replicate the civil strife experienced by Iran, especially the slogans echoed by protestors in Daraa, such as “No Hezbollah and No Iran”. This means that the source stems from the enemy, where external agents are receiving orders from enemies and Zionists!”
Here we must stop to examine several points. Firstly, the title of the conference itself is contradictory, for what is this “Islamic awakening” in a secular state, ruled by the Baath party? Secondly, the Syrian authorities came out in the media to do the impossible, and deny that the people in Daraa shouted “No Hezbollah and No Iran”. Yet here is the Iranian Ambassador himself confirming the opposite! This slogan is highly significant, especially in the game of majority and minority, and the sectarian dimension in Syria. The other matter of course is the Iranian Ambassador attacking the demonstrators and branding them as agents of enemies and Zionists, whilst we find that the Syrian President himself has begun to receive delegations from the troubled areas, including social activists from Hasaka province. The Syrian regime has also began talking about reforms, and a Syrian official told AFP yesterday that “There will be an extraordinary (parliament) session from May 2 to 6 in which social and political laws will be adopted in line with the reforms desired by the head of state”.
Is it conceivable that Damascus would respond to the demands of the “agents of enemies and Zionists”, and declare its intention to abolish the emergency law, for example? Let us consider that Turkey, a friend of Syria, has urged Damascus to enact reforms, and quickly. The day before yesterday, a senior Turkish source told our newspaper, when commenting on[Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu’s visit to Damascus, saying that Ankara “wants reforms to be put in place in accordance with the desires of the people”, expressing “disappointment” that the measures promised by the Syrian President had not been accelerated. The Turkish official revealed that the message Davutoğlu carried to Damascus was that “leaders must act with greater courage than the people”, calling on “leaders to listen to the voices of the masses, and not take the demonstrations lightly and resist change, but rather move towards this change”. Is it conceivable that Turkey has done all this, despite its interests in Syria, and the sensitivity of the Kurdish issue, only to serve the agents of the enemy and Zionists?
It is a sad state of affairs for Iranian diplomacy to descend to this level, but the magnitude of Iranian hypocrisy with regards to our region is astonishing. How can it explain its attacks on the Syrian people, compared to what it says and does in Bahrain for example? When the all sects of the Syrian community come out to demonstrate, they become traitors and foreign agents, yet when Bahrain’s Shia population comes out in protest, they are freedom fighters?
It’s clear that sedation follows Iran where ever it goes, and this is evident in Tehran’s dealings with Syria under the principle: support the regime and attack the people.
By: Tariq Alhomayed
Tariq Alhomayed is the Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, the youngest person to be appointed that position. Mr. Alhomayed has an acclaimed and distinguished career as a Journalist and has held many key positions in the field including; Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, Managing Editor of Asharq Al-Awsat in Saudi Arabia, Head of Asharq Al-Awsat Newspaper’s Bureau-Jeddah, Correspondent for Al – Madina Newspaper in Washington D.C. from 1998 to Aug 2000. Mr. Alhomyed has been a guest analyst and commentator on numerous news and current affair programs including: the BBC, German TV, Al Arabiya, Al- Hurra, LBC and the acclaimed Imad Live’s four-part series on terrorism and reformation in Saudi Arabia. He is also the first Journalist to conduct an interview with Osama Bin Ladin‘s Mother. Mr. Alhomayed holds a BA degree in Media studies from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, and has also completed his Introductory courses towards a Master’s degree from George Washington University in Washington D.C. He is based in London.