Aroma of Syrian blood fills the streets, Assad Refuses to stop the bloodshed
Published: May 20, 2011
– BEIRUT, Lebanon — Thousands of Syrians defied a ferocious crackdown and took to the streets Friday in what appeared to mark new momentum and a potentially dangerous turn in the nine-week uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Human rights activists said at least 26 people were killed when security forces opened fire in several cities.
In an unsettling sign for the government, protesters gathered in somewhat greater numbers in the capital, Damascus, which has remained relatively quiet until now. Far bigger crowds than last week also took part in protests in Baniyas, a coastal town that the government had declared quiet after deploying troops there weeks ago, and Homs, a city in central Syria that is emerging as a locus of the challenge to Mr. Assad’s authority.
Activists who provided details of the gatherings said some protesters in the most restive neighborhood of Homs raised a version of Syria’s flag that predated the Assad family’s rule. And in Albu Kamal, a town near the Iraqi border, a resident said protesters burned a municipal building and stormed a jail, freeing prisoners.
The turnout, though still far short of the mass demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, suggested that the government’s sweeping crackdown, in which hundreds have been killed and thousands were arrested, is proving incapable of crushing the dissent. Though the government has offered tentative steps toward reform, opposition figures have demanded an end to the government’s violence, a step it so far appears unwilling to take.
“No dialogue with tanks and soldiers,” went a slogan in Deir al Zour, a town in eastern Syria.
The protests came as the Obama administration ratcheted up pressure on Mr. Assad, whom American officials had described as a reformer as recently as March. The administration imposed sanctions on him and six other senior officials this week. And in Mr. Obama’s major address on the Middle East on Thursday, he used some of his harshest language yet on the government crackdown, saying Mr. Assad “now has a choice. He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”
Syrian officials in recent weeks have maintained that the government now has the upper hand, a sign that it believes the crackdown could bring quiet. Mr. Assad himself said in an interview with a Syrian newspaper this week that the unrest would soon come to an end.