11:56am

Tue October 11, 2011
Middle East

Syria Keeps Pressure On Protesters, Ignores Critics

Originally published on Sun October 16, 2011 4:00 pm

From the outset of the Syrian uprising last spring, Syria's president, Bashar Assad, offered promises of reform. Activists, meanwhile, documented abuses by his security forces, including video footage of shootings against unarmed protesters.

Now, the Assad government appears to be relying exclusively on brutal repression, giving free reign to the security services to crush the revolt, according to analysts inside and outside the country.

"It's all security, they are in command," said one Damascus-based analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The people who think more politically are marginalized."

According to Randa Slim with the New America Foundation, the Syrian regime has no political strategy aside from using violence in an attempt to restore a wall of fear.

"This is a policy that was meant by the regime to break down the resolve of the activists and instead it is strengthening the resolve," Slim said. "It has become an existential battle. It's either the regime or them."

Fewer Protests In Damascus

Tough security measures in the capital and the suburban neighborhoods have made it much more difficult and much more dangerous to mount large anti-government protests, according to one activist who did not want to be named out of concern for her safety.

"They are more scattered then they used to be," she said of protests around the capital. "You cannot see the same number, where you would see a couple of thousands; you cannot see that any more. The security is much, much tighter. And ruthless."

She says the Assad regime now targets organizers, especially those who advocate peaceful protest. Some who are arrested are brutally tortured as a lesson to others.

"They know who they are seeking," she added. "At the beginning it was random. They would catch whoever they see. Now, they are a little more selective with their custody."

The Syrian government has repeatedly blamed armed gangs for the violence. While government opponents have been using weapons more frequently in recent days and weeks, the Syrian security forces have been blamed for instigating the vast majority of the violence, according to human rights groups and many foreign governments.

In provincial capitals like Homs and Hama, the worst abuses are carried out by government paramilitary units known as the Shabeeha, says Randa Slim, who is researching the protest movement.

"Whenever there is a town where there is an active opposition going, elements of the Shabeeha and some of the soldiers will go on the outskirts with loud speakers and threaten to come in, raping their wives, raping their mothers, raping their sisters," she said.

Activists allege the regime is using rape as a weapon, but widespread cases have not been confirmed. However, even threatening sexual assault in Syria's conservative society has spread fear and anger.

Brutality In Homs

In the city of Homs, more have been killed in anti-government protests than anywhere else in the country. The human rights group, Avaaz, which documents the names of the dead counts 1,120, since the uprising began. Weapons are widely believed to be flooding into Homs.

"People have organized themselves to hold their ground to push back against security services," says one analyst who asked not to be named. "And there are a number of army defectors who are involved in operations to secure peaceful demonstrations and to take out snipers and storm check points."

The Syrian regime has portrayed the violence in Homs as a civil war.

"What we have in Homs, is 10 armed gangs — 33 people have been kidnapped from different sects — then they kill from this sect and they kill from the other. Any terrorism that targets this unity is destructive to Syria," said Buthain Shaaban, an adviser to President Assad.

But analysts and diplomats say it's the government crackdown that has pushed some in the protest movement to take up arms against the regime.

"I think the brutality has several explanations. One is that's what they are used to doing, it has worked in the past. But an additional benefit: It blocks the possibility of compromise," said Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Salem says that there are some in the Syrian government who recognize the protest movement has legitimate demands and share the goals of reform.

"Definitely, some members of the regime have been counseling politics, negotiation, a coalition government; there are many ways to deal with the crisis," he said.

But Syria's hardliners, he adds, are threatened by change.

"These intelligence and effectively mafia interests are very worried about reform and they can effectively block reform by throwing blood on the streets, and making it impossible for the opposition to accept negotiations," he says.

There is a long-term price to pay for so much bloodshed. Even Syria's strongest international allies — including Turkey, Russia and now China — have been increasingly critical. And in Damascus, many Syrian say privately that they can no longer support a regime that has used so much violence in an attempt to crush dissent.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The United Nations issued a new report last week, saying 3,000 Syrians have been killed in anti-government protests with 100 dead just in the past 10 days. And the numbers came with a warning: The top U.N. human rights official called the Syrian government campaign ruthless repression that could push the country to civil war.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports that as the government escalates the violence, more Syrians are getting armed.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE AND MISSILES)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: From the outset of the uprising, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, offered promises of reform as activists documented abuse by the security forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

AMOS: Mohammed Ali says after an arrest for organizing protests, he was humiliated and abused in jail.

MOHAMMED ALI: Torture is not so hard because the pain after two, three days, the pain was gone. When they humiliate us, it will be so hard for us.

AMOS: But now, the Assad government appears to be relying exclusively on brutal repression, giving free reign to the security services to crush the revolt, according to analysts inside and the outside the country.

The regime has no political strategy, says Randa Slim with the New America Foundation. Violence is a way to restore the wall of fear.

RANDA SLIM: This is a policy that was meant by the regime to break down the resolve of the activists. And instead, it is strengthening their resolve.

AMOS: The resolve to mount large, anti-government protests in neighborhoods around the capital, Damascus, has been sharply reduced, says this activist who can't be named for her safety.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Where you would see like, a couple of thousands, you cannot see that any more. The security is much, much tighter - and ruthless.

AMOS: She says the regime now targets organizers, especially those who advocate peaceful protest.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: At the beginning, it was random. They would catch whoever they see. Now, they are a little more selective with their custody.

AMOS: In provincial capitals like Homs and Hama, the worst abuses are carried out by paramilitary units known as the Shabbiha, says Randa Slim, who is researching the protest movement.

SLIM: Whenever there is a town where there is an active opposition going, elements of the Shabbiha and some of the soldiers will go on the outskirts with loud speakers and threaten of coming in and raping their wives, raping their mothers, raping their sisters.

AMOS: Activists charge the regime is using rape as a weapon, but widespread cases have been impossible to confirm. In Homs, human- rights groups have confirmed that more people have been killed in anti-government protests than anywhere else in the country. And now, weapons are flooding into Homs, says James Longman, who reported from the city without government permission.

JAMES LONGMAN: Well, I was told time and again, we're arming because we have no choice. One man said to me, I can either get a gun, protect my family; or sit at home and wait to be killed.

AMOS: The Syrian army is surrounding Homs, poised for an all-out assault. Syrian officials claim there is now a civil war there, and the army must contain the violence.

Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban:

DR. BUTHAINA SHAABAN: What we have in Homs is 10 armed gangs from different sects. Then they kill from this sect and they kill from the other. Any terrorism is destructive to Syria.

AMOS: But analysts and diplomats say the Syrians, especially in Homs, are arming in response to the brutal government crackdown. Paul Salem is the head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

DR. PAUL SALEM: I think the brutality has several explanations. One is that's what they're used to doing; that is what's worked in the past. But an additional benefit is that it blocks the possibility of compromise.

AMOS: He says there are still some in the Syrian government who believe a political solution is the only way out of the crisis.

SALEM: Definitely, some members of the regime have been counseling politics, negotiation, you know, a coalition government. There are many ways to deal with this crisis.

AMOS: But Syria's security hardliners are now in control.

SALEM: These intelligence and effectively, mafia interests are very worried about reform. And they can effectively block reform by throwing blood on the streets, and making it impossible even for the opposition to accept negotiation - because things have gone too far.

AMOS: Even so, there is a price to be paid for so much bloodshed. Syria's staunchest international allies now demand an end to the killing. And in Damascus, many Syrians say privately that they cannot support a regime that will stop at nothing to crush dissent.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.