Syria Protests: Over 50 Killed on Black Friday

At least 50 civilians have been killed by government forces in “Great Friday” protests. Lauren Williams, in nearby Tripoli, Lebanon, reports on how the state is following Egypt’s foolish playbook.

While Christians in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli celebrated Good Friday, their Muslim counterparts joined their Syrian brothers across the border for Great Friday demonstrations.

In the absence of any clear opposition voices in Syria, sectarian rivalries in Lebanon are coming into play.

“We will back a revolution in Syria just as we backed the revolution in Tunisia and in Egypt and in Libya,” said Abdullatife Daouk, spokesman for the international pan-Islamic political movement, Hizb Ut-Tahrir.

“We are backing a revolution in Syria as one party, one community and one nation—one Muslim nation.

“Bring back the real identity of the nation, the Islamic nation.”

Up to 600 people took part in the Tripoli demonstration in support of Syrian demonstrators, waving black flags, chanting anti-Syrian slogans and calling to “end the massacres in Syria” as they marched from the Mansouri Mosque to the Tell Square following morning prayer.

The Syrian state's early response to uprisings at home resembles similar appeals to the Islamist bogeyman we heard in the early days of the Egypt uprising.

The demonstration passed without incident, but was met with heavy security, including riot police and road blockades into areas of Tripoli. A shortened route was negotiated between the group and Lebanese authorities initially banned the demonstration, fearing clashes with supporters of President Bashar al-Assad in Tripoli on the same day.

Security was also tightened on the northern border road to Syria, leading to Homs.

Lebanon has been nervously eyeing developments in Syria. Sectarian mudslinging in the fragile state—now three months without a government—between pro- and anti-Assad groups has stepped up in recent weeks, inflaming sectarian tensions in Lebanon, already in political deadlock over Syrian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah's boycott of a U.N. investigation into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Hariri was the father of the head of the Sunni-backed Future Movement, Saad Hariri. The Special Tribunal findings are expected to indict members of Hezbollah and Syrians.

While the Syrian demonstrations grow in intensity—with more than 50 people killed across the country Friday despite the introduction of reforms—opposition has remained largely fragmented.

Some say the time has come for secular groups to step up coordinated efforts to prevent descending into the sectarian division, or even civil war, that the state is sowing. But with arrests of anti-government orchestrators continuing in Syria, few intellectuals or opposition voices have emerged.

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One activist, sourcing video footage and witness accounts from Beirut, said the time had come for someone to take charge of the movement.

“So far nobody is stepping up,” he said. “Nobody can talk. They are still afraid.”

The Syrian state's early response to uprisings at home resembles similar appeals to the Islamist bogeyman we heard in the early days of the Egypt uprising in response to the Muslim Brotherhood. Choreographed by “foreign elements,” the argument goes, democracy in Syria will only lead to putting power in the wrong hands—that of the Sunni Salafit extremists.

The first set of reforms announced by the state appeared aimed to “appease” the usually aggrieved suspects, granting citizenship rights to around 200,000 Kurds (they promptly rejected the offer), reversing several of the key secularist policies likely to irritate Sunni Islamists, closing the illegal casino, and reversing the ban on the niqab—reinforcing and nurturing the notion that it was from these directions that dissent was brewing.

The appointment of the Bahrain-based head of the Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI), Mohamad Nedal Alchaar, as the new cabinet’s economy and trade minister also had the tone of Sunni appeasement.

Further stoking the sectarian fire in Lebanon came an all out accusation from the Syrian state last week, which aired on state television the alleged confessions of three members of the Muslim Brotherhood claiming to have been planning to incite protests and form armed groups on the instructions of Jamal Jarrah, a Lebanese parliamentarian belonging to the Future Movement. Jarrah has denied the accusation.

Hezbollah seized the opportunity to create a fresh attack on their Future Movement opponents last week.

Enter WikiLeaks. Cables released last week appeared to show the U.S. State Department was funding moderate Islamic opposition groups via funding of the Barada TV satellite channel to bring down the regime and, counterintuitively, playing exactly into the regime’s hands by giving the otherwise ridiculous accusations against "foreign elements" a degree of legitimacy; Sunni groups, if not the best funded in opposition are so far the best organized—and they have an axe to grind.

Unconfirmed reports of violence directed against Alawis in the northern city of Lattakia emerged last week, while in Homs there are conflicting reports about who is behind the shootings. Secular Syrian activists coordinating demonstrations inside Syria Friday released the first statement of intent since protests broke out in March.

The local coordination committee’s statement said: “It is becoming necessary to unequivocally state the demands behind this revolution in order not to create any confusion or to have our demands circumvented or misstated on our behalf.”

“We must stop all attempts by the Syrian tyrannical machine to thwart and circumvent the acquisition of our basic rights and needs. This government is based on lies, and it is in direct violation of the sanctity and safety of all Syrian nationals. They are gambling with our national unity by playing sectarian, ethnic, and religious divisions against each other.” The statement listed demands including:

An end to violence and torture and that the state “bear the responsibility for what has happened, calling for an independent commission to investigate the deaths.

“We demand that they make a formal apology and announce three days of national mourning in the name of the victims (civilian and military).”

Additionally: “We ask for the establishment in Syria, during this transitional period, of a national body to redress grievances and to reconcile in accordance with our long-held standards of justice in order that we neutralize and remove all hotbeds of tension. This will help us turn this page forever.”

Once reforms have been rejected it is difficult to see how long the regime in Syria can hang on. Certainly, if democratic elections are announced, there are plenty of Sunni voices ready to take up the call. The opposition needs to gets its act together quickly if the bogeyman of sectarian division is to be avoided.

Whatever happens, Lebanon will feel it.

Correction: The piece originally stated that Syria granted citizenship rights to around 100,000 Kurds, instead of 200,000.