Faced with large protests across the country, Syrian security forces opened fire on protesters today in several cities.
Soldiers shot at demonstrators in the restive southern city of Daraa after crowds set fire to a bronze statue of the country’s late president, Hafez Assad, a resident told The Associated Press. Heavy gunfire could be heard in the city center and witnesses reported several casualties, the resident said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
An activist told the AP that witnesses had reported one demonstrator shot dead by security forces in the coastal city of Latakia, and another slain in the central city of Homs. He said several people had been hospitalized in Latakia.
In the capital, Damascus, people shouting in support of the Daraa protesters clashed with regime supporters outside the historic Umayyad mosque, hitting each other with leather belts.
Syria is pretty closed off to journalists, so a lot of this is coming from eyewitness reports. CNN reported that at least 24 were killed in Deraa, site of protests for over a week and a massacre at a mosque earlier this week. But they too went off of eyewitness accounts, as their journalists have been denied access. Eyewitnesses have given estimates of protests as high as 100,000 in various parts of the country.
The UN is being asked to get involved:
The international community is concerned about the situation in Syria. The United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke by phone with President Assad.
Human Rights Watch, among other groups, said Thursday that around three dozen people were killed in clashes in a 48-hour period.
“Syria’s security forces are showing the same cruel disregard for protesters’ lives as their counterparts in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“President Bashar al-Assad’s talk about reforms doesn’t mean anything when his security forces are mowing down people who want to talk about them.”
Assad made concessions to the protesters yesterday, which drew an immediate rebuke.
In response to earlier violence, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a pro forma statement that mirrored pretty much every other pro forma statement put out by the Administration, condemning the violence and adhering to a standard of universal rights. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Tel Aviv yesterday, went a bit further, saying that Assad “might take a lesson” from the uprising in Egypt:
“I would say that what the Syrian government is confronting is in fact the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people,” Gates said during a visit to Israel.
“Some of them are dealing with it better than others. I’ve just come from Egypt, where the Egyptian army stood on the sidelines and allowed people to demonstrate and in fact empowered a revolution. The Syrians might take a lesson from that,” he told reporters.
And the uprising appears to be moving again across the region. Bahrain saw new protests today despite the very brutal repression in that country. And protesters returned to the streets of Jordan today, which resulted in clashes that left at least one dead.
The crackdown in Syria is not likely to stop the protests; after all, the mosque massacre in Deraa led to demonstrations today in Damascus and Latakia and Homs and Raqqa. Repression has generally not worked in the uprising, unless you’re willing to basically murder large cross-sections of your people.