article

06.08.11

Syria's Immovable Forces: Activists, Regime Dig In

As the Syrian crisis grinds into its third month, with 1,300 civilians killed and more than 10,000 arrested, both sides are girding for a long struggle, reports Mike Giglio, with the government cracking down and new activists rising up to replace those slain or detained.

When Syria’s protests started, scattered and in earnest, in March, Omar Edlbi did what he could on the ground. A longtime political activist, he helped coordinate demonstrations and relay news. But as the protests intensified, so did the government crackdown—especially on activists like him. “It was difficult from the beginning,” he says. “But it got harder. The regime is making war on anybody who is even slightly involved.”

Edlbi ultimately was driven into hiding. Last month, after furniture-smashing raids on his home, and then the homes of his relatives, he was smuggled into the relative safety of Beirut. Now he does what he can online from an apartment with a handful of other exiled activists, who say they’re so busy, they often don’t even greet one another. And the load keeps piling up. “Every day we have more responsibilities,” says Malath Aumran, a pseudonymous activist working from the same apartment.

A rash of media attention followed recent reports of the arrest of Amina Abdallah Arraf, a Syrian-American blogger in Damascus who’d become popular in the West. It has since become unclear whether Arraf is a real person or a hoax. But in addition to the 1,300 civilians who have been killed since the protests began, rights groups have counted more than 10,000 very real arrests.

Some of those detained were released in a recent amnesty measure, part of autocratic President Bashar al-Assad’s pattern of offering small concessions even as his regime amplifies its deadly response. But many have remained in jail, and the arrests—and pressure—have continued. “They are targeting activists still, and the police have a very specific mandate to shut the protests down,” says Marwan Maalouf, a program officer at Freedom House in Washington, D.C. who works closely with activists in Syria.

Most arrests get little attention outside the country. Najate Tayara, an influential organizer in the city of Homs, came out of hiding only to be arrested by armed men last month, according to human-rights groups. Anas Sheghri, a protest leader in Banias, was jailed in April. Razan Zeitouneh, one of the country’s best-known activists, has been in hiding since the early days of the protests. But her husband, Wael Hamade, and his brother, Abdulrahman, have both been imprisoned. “Her husband has been taken as a hostage,” says Ahed Alhendi, the Arabic programs coordinator at CyberDissidents.org and a former student activist in Damascus.

“The regime is making war on anybody who is even slightly involved.”

As the protests grind into their third month, the crackdown shows no sign of letting up. “It’s taking its toll,” says Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria. “Egypt, Tunisia, and the others were done in a much shorter time. But Syria was always going to be a marathon.”

With the United Nations Security Council still unwilling to challenge the regime, meanwhile, the specter of violence has only grown, with reports of tanks deployed in Homs, the country’s third-largest city. Yesterday, meanwhile, elite soldiers and a column of tanks reportedly were making their way toward the northern town of Jisr al-Shughur, where there have been muddled reports of the deaths of 120 Syrian soldiers and competing explanations of infighting among security forces or armed resistance—either of which, Maalouf worries, could push the government further down the path to “the Libya way”—waging outright war on its people.

Meanwhile, even as seasoned activists disappear from the streets, new ones seem to be taking their places. Last Friday saw the largest spate of demonstrations yet—reportedly, more than 300,000 people across the country took to the streets—and also one of the regime’s deadliest waves of attacks.

Both sides, in fact, seem to be girding for the long haul. “The authorities are bent on crushing the protests, and the protests have grown increasingly resilient, against all odds,” Houry says. “Now you have these two immovable forces that are going to clash head-on.”