By Henry Gombya in London and agency reports
The fear of antagonising peace talks between Syria and Israel is letting Western leaders look on helplessly as the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad unleashes a reign of terror on his own people. Since peace demonstrations started in Syria some six weeks ago, an estimated 400 people have been shot dead by Syrian security forces and hundreds more injured as Assad shows his seriousness in trying to stop another North African uprising break out in his country.
Since Good Friday, over 100 Syrians have been shot dead at point blank range in the city of Deraa, according to Reuters. Western TV news cameras are showing daily photos of heavily armed Syrian soldiers, some on army tanks and some on foot, rampaging through cities and towns, shooting without question anyone suspected on being involved in the demonstrations. They reported soldiers walking along streets shooting randomly with dead bodies spread across streets. A Reuters report says President Assad’s brother Maher, led a Syrian army brigade that cut off roads and went on to shell homes while storming houses and rounding up people.
While the world’s only super power, the United States is watching and European countries are busy bombarding the North African country of Libya, President Assad, a British-trained doctor who became leader after the death of his father 11 years ago, has gone on to rule his countrymen with impunity vying to crash any attempt to make him step down or introduce credible changes in the way his country is run.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who only a couple of weeks ago ordered UN soldiers to storm the presidential palace of Cote d’Ivoire’s then president, Laurent Gbagbo, has sat silently offering no initiative to make Assad stop his rampage. British Foreign secretary William Hague said Tuesday the United Kingdom would ‘consider’ applying sanctions against the Assad regime if it did not stop the killing of innocent civilians. Compare this with the British Government’s efforts to bring about regime change in Libya and being one of the frontline Western states currently engaged in wiping out Libyan security forces.
Over the Easter weekend, the Italian government, whose trade with Syria is quite substantial, chose to instead announce it was sending the Italian Air Force to join Britain, France and some members of the Arab League in the ‘shooting spree’ against Col Gadhafi but said nothing as Syrians continued to be mowed down by Assad’s blood-thirsty army. When question on what appears to be double standards on the part of the West with events in Libya compared to those in Syria, Mr Hague said the two Arab countries cannot be compared.
He argued that in the case of Libya, Western Forces had been invited to save the lives of Libyans being threatened by Col Gadhafi and that the UN had also sanctioned the West’s presence in Libya while nothing of the sort has been done either by the Arab League or the UN. But he made it clear that Britain was working on possible ‘further measures’ against Damascus and said protesters must ‘be protected, not attacked’. “The United Kingdom is working intensively with our international partners to persuade the Syrian authorities to stop the violence and respect basic and universal human rights to freedoms of expression and assembly,” the British Foreign Secretary told parliament.
The Foreign Secretary added: “President Assad should order his authorities to show restraint and to respond to the legitimate demands of his people with immediate and genuine reform, not with brutal repression.”
The following report is an account by Reuters News Agency on what is happening in Syria at the moment.
More than 2,000 security police were deployed in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Tuesday, manning road blocks and checking the identity of residents, a witness told Reuters. The witness, a former army member who did not want to be identified, said he saw several trucks in the streets equipped with heavy machineguns and said men who he believed were members of the plain clothes secret police were carrying assault rifles. Busloads of soldiers, who he believed to be Republican Guards, in full combat gear, also began deploying the suburb.
Security forces also deployed in the hills around the coastal city of Banias, where demonstrators chanted: “The people want the overthrow of the regime,” a human rights activist said. Residents in Deraa, reached by telephone, said black smoke was rising from every part of the city and that heavy artillery and Kalashnikov rounds were heard from the Old City. “In the street I am in there are around 10 tanks. Their aim is just to destroy and destroy … They are shelling homes and demolishing them,” said Abu Khaldoun.
“Maher al-Assad’s forces have spread everywhere and with their roadblocks Deraa has become a big prison. You cannot go out without endangering your life,” said his cousin, Abu Tamer. “They are rounding up dozens of people and arresting them.” Residents said it was not clear how many people had been killed since the army pushed into Deraa and that they were not allowed to get to the bodies that lie in the streets.
Security forces have shot dead 400 civilians in a campaign to crush the uprising against Assad’s rule, Syrian human rights organisation Sawasiah said on Tuesday. Another 500 people had been arrested in the last two days, it said. Washington said on Monday it was studying targeted sanctions against Syria, while in Turkey, Syrian opposition figures pleaded for international help. “Our friends in the West, in Turkey, in the Arab world, if they want to help us, then they can do that by … putting the clearest possible pressure on the Syrian regime to stop targeting civilians,” Anas Abdah, the British-based chairman of the Movement for Justice and Development, told Reuters.
Activists said the military move showed Assad had decided on force, not reforms, to deal with protests inspired by Arab uprisings which toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. Ali Al Atassi, an activist whose father was jailed for 22 years under Hafez al-Assad, said “another Hama” was impossible, referring to the 1982 crackdown which killed thousands. “This regime doesn’t understand that the world has changed, that the Arab region has changed and that the Syrian people have changed. They are still locked in the past and those who don’t change at the right moment; they will be forced to change.”
Last week Assad lifted Syria’s 48-year state of emergency and abolished a hated state security court. But the next day 100 people were killed during protests across the country. Despite deepening his father’s alliance with Iran, clawing back influence in Lebanon and backing militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, Assad has kept Syria’s front line with Israel quiet and held indirect peace talks with the Jewish state.
Criticism of his crackdown was restrained at first, partly because of fears that a collapse of Assad’s minority Alawite rule might lead to sectarian conflict in the majority Sunni state, and because Washington had hoped to loosen Syria’s alliance with Iran and promote a peace deal with Israel. Arab states some of them putting down protests on their own soil, also refrained from criticising Assad, though the 22-member Arab League said on Tuesday pro-democracy demonstrators across the region “deserve support, not bullets.”
Amnesty International, citing sources in Deraa, said at least 23 people were killed when tanks shelled Deraa on Monday. The U.N. Security Council must refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, it said. The White House, deploring “brutal violence used by the government of Syria against its people,” has said President Barack Obama’s administration is considering targeted sanctions. Syria has been under U.S. sanctions since 2004 for its support of militant groups. Several Syrian officials, among them Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, a tycoon, are under specific U.S. sanctions for “public corruption.”