Pro-regime demonstrators in Syria have surrounded the Damascus bureau of Al Jazeera and threatened to burn it to the ground after the network covered the regime’s ongoing massacre of protesters. Police fired into a crowd in the town of Sanamein on Friday, killing 20 demonstrators. Another three people were killed in Damascus, and several more were brought down by “heavy gunfire” in Daraa as they tried to burn down a statue of the former president. Regime thugs also killed at least 15 people on Wednesday in Daraa, where the opposition movement began; protests have now spread across the country. "We strongly condemn the Syrian government's attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.
Below, a witness from inside Syria—writing anonymously for safety reasons—describes the rage engulfing the country.
Plus, ex-CIA analyst Bruce Riedel on how Syria's protests could rattle the region.
Violent crackdowns have plagued several days of protests in the southern town of Deraa in Syria. The exact number of deaths and injuries is difficult to determine because the government has severed the town from the outside, surrounding it with troops and cutting off electricity and communications.
Photos: Protests in Syria Turn Violent
At least 20 people have died according to press reports, including a doctor who visited the local Omari mosque to attend to injured civilians. Videos on the Internet have shown assaults and gunfire on the streets. More protests are expected following Friday prayers, according to calls for action on social networking websites.
In a televised speech Thursday, President Bashar Asaad announced he would allow greater freedom of the press and improve economic conditions by increasing public salaries and reducing taxes.
But protesters have made several demands that go further, mostly regarding freedom of expression and improving economic conditions. That the largest protests have occurred in a few outlying towns rather than the urban centers should come as no surprise—villages have the highest rates of unemployment and are strictly oppressed by state security. This works, however, in favor of the government, because demonstrations would have to spread to the rest of the country to succeed.
According to Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the manager of syriacomment.com, members of the army would also have to defect to pose a real threat to the regime.
“In order for it to be effective it has to spread to other places such as Damascus and Aleppo, and it's not clear yet whether the army Sunni elites and people will join in,” he said over the phone.
The Syrian government is arresting activists and protesters under the banner of an emergency law dating to 1963.
People opposed to revolution in Syria worry that a civil war could break out because the country is divided into sects. Sunni Muslims represent the largest number of people, but members of the president’s Alawite sect, who make up about 25 percent of the population, hold disproportionate numbers of government jobs and business interests. Syria also has a substantial Armenian population, as well as several tens of thousands of Palestinians and a million Iraqi refugees. An estimated 90 percent of Kurds cannot obtain citizenship.
Several activists, however, say the prospect of civil war is mere propaganda from the regime. The government has also accused Islamists and foreigners–particularly Americans–of inciting uprisings.
"It's all like [Yemeni President Ali Abdullah] Saleh and [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak. These are the terms of the dictators," said a Syrian journalist in Dubai, who requested his name not be published.
He said the state news service, or SANA, is sending out a message that gives the appearance the government itself is divided into two camps: one calling for a fierce crackdown on dissent, the other for cautious reform. This includes a disinformation campaign to exonerate the military by saying it takes orders from plain-clothed state security.
“What is this, that the army would obey someone from the street? What is this?” he said.
Landis said the Syrian government has little intention of reforming. He said it is using the threat of Islamist extremism and foreign intervention, which could dissuade the general population from participating in protests.
“The government has framed this in terms of a national security fight,” he said. “Farouk al-Sharaa, the vice president, accused the opposition of working with al Qaeda and taking directions from America. This framed it in terms of a national security issue and a foreign conspiracy undermining the state. You can't negotiate with an enemy that's described in those terms.”
The government has long cracked down on Islamists. In 1982, former President Hafez Assad–the father of the current president–leveled the town of Hama with bomber airplanes after the largely conservative village held protests. The massacre sent a chilling message across the country that dissent was strictly forbidden. Although it happened nearly 30 years ago, it is not far from the minds of the people of Deraa, and the rest of the country.
In addition to the current violence against the villagers of Deraa, the Syrian government is arresting activists and protesters elsewhere, under the banner of an emergency law dating to 1963. Suheir Attasi, a prominent critic in Damascus, was recently arrested after appearing in an interview with the BBC. Attasi has serious health problems, and friends on her Facebook page have expressed concern about her condition while in detention.
“All of this was a message to the people: don't have any thought of asking for freedom or for anything away from the emergency law,” said a Syrian activist in exile in Beirut, under the condition of anonymity.
Another well-known activist, Tayib Tizini, was detained for a few days and then released, but the Syrian journalist in Dubai said it was only to avoid negative press. Tizini has not answered his mobile phone for several days.
“Tayib was released after two days because he is famous and they don't want any attention,” the journalist said. “But they threatened him and knocked his head up against a wall. They told him if he says another thing he'll die.”