Syria's Assad offers amnesty to political prisoners

Assad's conciliatory gesture is unlikely to halt the momentum of Syria's opposition, which is meeting in Turkey to discuss a transition to democracy.

By , Correspondent

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    In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone, taken on Friday, May 27, and made available May 29, Syrian anti-regime protesters carry banners during a rally in Talbiseh, in the central province of Homs, Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a conciliatory gesture to anti-regime protesters, announced Tuesday a general amnesty for all 'crimes' committed before May 31.
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a clear conciliatory gesture to anti-regime protesters following weeks of brutal suppression by his security forces, announced Tuesday a general amnesty for all “crimes” committed before May 31.

According to Syrian TV, the amnesty will apply to all political prisoners as well as to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. More than 1,000 people have died and 10,000 people have been arrested in recent weeks as part of a crackdown by the Syrian authorities to stamp out an unprecedented uprising that has shaken Mr. Assad’s 11-year hold on power. There was no immediate word on when the detainees would begin to be released.

“It’s too soon to comment on the political consequences, but right now I am celebrating because it means that 17 of my friends should be released from prison,” says Rami Nakhle, an opposition activist in hiding in Beirut, speaking minutes after the announcement was broadcast. He condemned the decree’s reference to “crimes,” however, saying, “None of my friends committed any crimes.”

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The violent crackdown on the protest movement, which has drawn international condemnations and sanctions against the Syrian leadership, suggests that Assad’s gesture alone will be insufficient to bring an abrupt end to the uprising. Indeed, the demands of the street protestors have hardened during the past few weeks from calls for greater freedoms to demands that Assad must go.

300 to 400 opposition members meet in Turkey

Mohammed Said Bkheitan, assistant secretary-general of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, told Syrian TV yesterday that mechanisms for a dialogue between the authorities and the opposition would be announced in the next 48 hours. Buthaina Shaaban, a top adviser to Assad, is believed to have been holding talks in recent weeks with some members of the opposition to explore areas of common ground.

Some 300 to 400 members of the Syrian opposition arrived in Turkey yesterday for a three-day conference to discuss the transition to a democracy and to voice support for the uprising.

The Syrian opposition is a mix of secular liberals, former regime exiles, exiled Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a new generation of young tech-savvy activists who are driving the protest movement inside Syria. As yet, no credible leader or leadership clique has emerged that can appeal across Syria’s complex sectarian and ethnic landscape.

The lack of a credible alternative to Assad and fear of sectarian chaos if the regime should fall has deterred a silent majority of Syrians from taking to the streets, particularly in the key cities of Damascus and Aleppo, which together contain half of Syria’s population.

Are protesters taking up arms?

Even as Assad was preparing to unveil his amnesty decree, Syrian troops used tanks and helicopters to pursue opposition protestors in Rastan in northern Syria for a third straight day in a crackdown that has left at least 16 people dead.

Syria's latest offensive comes amid reports that the protesters are firing back against security forces. Such a step, if confirmed, could deepen the violence and even risk civil war.

There have been numerous unconfirmed reports of opposition members and defecting soldiers shooting at security forces. The violence in Syria has spurred a massive boom in black-market arms sales in neighboring Lebanon with almost all the weapons going to Syrian customers, according to Lebanese arms dealers.

While some of the trade is prompted by nervous Syrians looking to protect themselves and their families in case the violence increases, reports persist that some of the weapons are being used against Syrian security forces. An Associated Press report published Monday quoted two opposition activists from the Homs area claiming that civilians armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were putting up a stiff resistance against troops and security forces.

However, Nakhle insists that the protesters remain unarmed and that reports of civilians firing back are propaganda smears by the regime.

“There are secret police pretending to be activists who are taking calls from the international media and saying that they are eyewitnesses and that people are firing on the army,” says the activist. “It’s a way of trying to give legitimacy to what the army is doing.”

Still, analysts suspect that if the violence continues to grind on with neither buckling, it is only a matter of time before the opposition begins to resort to weapons, if only as a means of protection.

Heavy machine gun fire used in crackdown near Homs

Syrian troops used tanks and helicopters Tuesday to crack down against opposition protesters in Rastan in northern Syria for a third straight day.

Heavy machine gun fire was heard in the streets of Rastan – located 12 miles north of Homs, Syria’s third-largest town – as tanks and helicopters reportedly pressed ahead with a campaign to crush the anti-regime protest movement.

Rastan and Talbisah, which lies five miles north of Homs, have been besieged since the weekend. There were reports that a police station was attacked and burned and weapons stolen from inside the building in response to the killing nearby of a 10-year-old girl.

The information from inside Rastan could not be confirmed as the Syrian authorities have imposed tight restrictions on reporters.

The Syrian regime blames the violence on Islamic extremists and “armed criminal gangs,” whom it claims are responsible for the deaths of dozens of soldiers.

A young opposition leader had told the Monitor in early May that he believed the uprising would soon evolve into an armed civil war similar to the conflict roiling Libya. He called himself Nisr min Tel Kalakh, or the eagle of Tel Kalakh – his town, which lies two miles north of Syria's border with Lebanon.

Fear of Syrian incursions into Lebanon

Tel Kalakh has faced a two-week crackdown, prompting thousands of Syrian refugees to flee to Lebanon – slipping across the Kabir river that marks the border between Lebanon and Syria, just as the "eagle" did to speak with the Monitor recently.

According to some of the refugees from Tel Kalakh, the young opposition leader was arrested in late May by security forces.

“They found him with phone videos he had been collecting of the damage done to houses by the tank shelling,” said one young man who was a friend of the “Eagle." “I don’t think we will ever see him alive again,” he added, speaking before Assad's amnesty deal was announced.

Most of the Syrian refugees have found shelter in Lebanese homes close to the border. However, the redeployment of Lebanese troops last week from a bridge crossing the Kabir river connecting Syria to the Wadi Khaled district of northern Lebanon has left local residents and Syrian refugees worrying about their vulnerability to possible cross-border raids by Syrian security forces.

They suspect that the Lebanese troops departed the bridge at Arida to avoid a potential clash with Syrian security forces if they choose to cross the river.

“The Syrians have got a red eye on Wadi Khaled. They will burn us down if they can,” says a Lebanese who has been helping shelter refugees from Tel Kalakh.

Syrian troops have increased their presence along the border. A small military position has been established in a grassy field near the river bank at Arida.
Recent nights have been punctuated by sniper and machine gun fire emanating from the Syrian side of the border and directed at homes inside Lebanon.

“I didn’t sleep at all last night,” says the driver of a small van near Arida. He pulled down a lower eyelid with his finger to emphasise his fatigue. “There was shooting all night long.”

If the Syrian authorities sanction a cross-border raid to capture Syrian refugees from Tel Kalakh – approving it perhaps under the rubric of an antiterrorism measure – it will cause severe diplomatic embarrassment for the Lebanese state and worsen already tense political climate between Lebanese factions for and against the Assad regime.

The Lebanese fear that the violence in neighboring Syria inevitably will slip across the border. On Friday, a roadside bomb exploded beside a convoy of Italian peacekeepers on the main coastal road, 20 miles south of Beirut. Six Italians were wounded along with two civilians. UNIFIL officials fear that there will be further attacks against the relatively vulnerable 9,000-strong force.

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