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Syrian protesters met with gunfire; clashes leave 13 dead, hundreds wounded

Tens of thousands of protesters hit the streets of several Syrian cities. In Dara, gunfire erupts, according to witnesses and human rights activists. State media acknowledges the bloodshed but blames it on unknown gunmen.

April 09, 2011|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo — In recent days, Syrian President Bashar Assad has tried to show that his long-entrenched autocracy is capable of reform. He fired governors and Cabinet members, promised citizenship to the Kurdish minority, and vowed that, over time, he would increase civil liberties for all.

The response from the Syrian street now seems clear: That's not enough.

Assad's political maneuvers have failed to close the spigot of outrage that has now flowed for more than three weeks. Tens of thousands of protesters turned out across the country Friday, spreading for the first time in large numbers to Aleppo, the country's second-largest city.

The result was more violence. In the southern city of Dara, the epicenter of the unrest, security forces fired on protesters, killing at least 22 people and wounding hundreds more. Four more were killed in clashes with security forces in the western city of Hims, witnesses said.

"It's another bloody day in Syria," said Razan Zeitoune, a human rights lawyer in Damascus, the capital.

As the protests have strengthened, the demands have inched past complaints about Assad's policies and turned toward Assad and his family's four-decade rule. Witnesses said protesters attacked a statue of the president's late brother, Basil, in Dara on Friday.

Basil Assad, who died in a car accident in 1994, had been groomed to take over from his father, Hafez, and was seen by some Syrians as a possible reformist figure. Tearing down his statue could be an indication that the populist anger may be turning more forcefully against the Assad family.

Until this week, the protests had been marked by vague chants of "freedom." But some demonstrators on Friday called for the fall of the regime, according to Obeida Nahas, director of the Levant Institute, a London think tank.

"Basil was seen as a young symbol capable of renewing the regime back in the 1990s because there was no hope of getting a successor to Hafez Assad from outside the family," Nahas said. "Now people are realizing they don't have to stick to a choice of one family anymore."

Hopes for reform had followed Bashar Assad as well when he succeeded his father 11 years ago. But the president's efforts to privatize the economy have lagged, nor has he made much movement toward greater political freedom in a country that since 1963 has been under an emergency law that allows the detention of political opponents without trial.

"Assad could have leveraged the popularity that he really does have in the country and the region to create a critical mass for real reform rather than waiting for this critical mass of opposition," says David Lesch, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio and the author of a book about Assad.

Lesch said he was surprised that Assad had not challenged the political establishment more forcefully to meet the demands of the various protest groups before they united against him.

Protests in the south and west have focused on government corruption and economic suffering. Kurds in the northeast have pushed for citizenship in order to gain travel rights and government jobs. Some conservative Muslims have chafed at secular elements of the regime. But in recent weeks all of the groups have moved incrementally toward uniting as they press for greater political freedom.

Among the chants rising from the crowds Friday was "One, one, one, the Syrian people are one."

But Assad has political advantages that the toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia did not, including near-total control of the military and security forces.

State-run media acknowledged the bloodshed in Dara but blamed it on vandals. "A security forces member was martyred and scores of citizens, security forces and policemen were wounded," the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

Additionally, although many Syrians are unhappy with aspects of the regime, the country has a deep desire for stability. With examples of instability on two sides — in Lebanon and Iraq — some are willing to compromise their political freedoms to maintain order.

"I don't think a revolution is likely to happen any time soon, although we have seen recently in the region that these things can mushroom very quickly, and faster than we ever expect," Lesch said.

Activists estimate that more than 130 people have died during the weeks of clashes, mostly in Dara and Latakia.

Syrian officials say the death toll is closer to 30, and they blame the violence on armed groups and foreigners seeking to divide the country.

As more people are killed, more of the anger is going to be directed at the regime and the president, Nahas predicted. .

"This is why pressure is now going to grow for more drastic reforms or radical change within the regime," he said. "The window of flexible political solutions is so narrow now."

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