Syrian activists galvanized by killing of Kurdish leader

The killing of Mashaal Tammo, a Kurdish member of the new Syrian National Council who called for unity across ethnic and religious groups, may help galvanize Syrian activists seeking to topple President Assad.

By , Staff writer

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    Syrian anti-government activists display wreathes and framed photos of slain Mashaal Tammo, a former political prisoner and a spokesman for the Kurdish Future Party who was the latest in a string of targeted killings in Syria, during a protest next to Egyptian army soldiers securing the surrounding area of the Syrian embassy in Cairo on Tuesday.
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More than half a year into a popular uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that has already claimed 2,900 lives, Syrian activists say that the killing of one more at the hands of regime assassins is invigorating their cause.

Tens of thousands of Syrians protested the death on Friday of Mashaal Tammo, a member of the newly formed opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) and a leader of the Kurdish Future Party. The momentum may help galvanize Syrians who seek to topple Mr. Assad, following in the steps of the Arab people-power revolutions that have ousted dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

"His blood will be like the light of a candle for the Syrian revolution," Abdelbasset Hamo told mourners at an Istanbul memorial ceremony via Skype from Germany, noting that Tammo's given name means "flame" in Arabic. "He is a symbol for all people of the Syrian revolution."

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The regime has warned that Assad's fall could prompt civil war between Syria's diverse ethnic and religious groups. But activists say they are united across such lines and the death of Tammo – a proponent for such unity – will only strengthen their cause, in part by impelling even more of Tammo's fellow Kurds to join the opposition.

"By killing him, [the regime] will put oil on the fire, because Kurds are from the [northeast] border to the sea ... they will rise up and be very strong," said one university student activist who left Tammo's hometown of Qamishli for Turkey two weeks ago, and asked not to be named.

"He was an important person in Syria because he tried to combine all religious and ethnic groups," said the student, who knew Tammo and studied with his son. "He said: 'We are just Syrians, only Syrians; we must respect each other."

But Omar Shawaf, an exiled Syrian activist at the Istanbul ceremony, said the Assad regime has tried to prevent such unity.

"The regime has tried to play this game, so ethnic groups would fight each other," said Mr. Shawaf at the ceremony Saturday, where echoes of the killing in Syria's remote northeastern corner could be felt.

"This dirty regime will not keep quiet until they destroy the country and create a civil war," said Shawaf, as exiled Syrian activists sat quietly in their grief.

The killing of Tammo, a vocal critic of Assad, prompted mass protests across Syria on Sunday. Opposition groups said five people died during the funeral in Qamishli on Saturday, with handfuls more since then in daily protests across the country.

Widening regional anger against Syria

The high-profile killing took place as Syria is coming under greater pressure from neighboring Turkey and Iraq, as well as from the European Union and even Russia. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to announce some type of unilateral sanctions against Syria this week.

Turkey condemned the "heinous assassination" of Temmo and targeting of opposition figures, in a statement: "Turkey expects the Syrian administration to realize as soon as possible that acts of violence designed to suppress the the opposition in Syria, which strives to express its views through peaceful means, cannot turn back the course of history."

Turkey has hosted opposition meetings, and last week Istanbul was the scene for the creation of the umbrella SNC, which unified a host of regime opponents. The SNC was recognized over the weekend by its people-power brethren in Libya, the Transitional National Council, which ousted Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Such cooperation has angered Damascus, which stated over the weekend: "We will take tough measures against any state which recognizes this illegitimate council."

The killing of SNC member Tammo, however, has widened anger against the Assad regime.

The premier of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdistan region, Barham Salih, sent out a tweet saying Tammo was a "democratic activist ... murdered by Syrian security. Lesson from Iraq: repression cannot defeat free will of Syria's people."

In a subsequent tweet, Mr. Salih noted on Monday that he met Temmo's son Faris, an "impressive young lawyer, determined to pursue his father's quest for liberty."

The Qamishli student activist who studied with Faris says that the murder must be understood in the context of Syria's increasing international isolation.

"This killing shows they are so desperate they will do anything now, because all countries of the United Nations know this [Syrian] regime will go," said the activist, decrying the Russian and Chinese veto last week of a UN Security Council resolution against Syria as out of synch with values that have increasingly resonated across the Arab world this year.

Even Russia and China, which blocked the resolution that would have led to only the "consideration" of sanctions if Syria did not ease its lethal crackdown, have since urged Syria to quickly implement promised reforms.

"There is trade between them, but now is the time of humanity," says the student activist. "We should be human now, because every day a lot of people are killed over there [in Syria]."

Pro-regime militiamen blamed for death

Syrians from Qamishli said that Tammo was murdered by a three-man hit team of the pro-regime militia known as the shabiha. Tammo had foiled an assassination attempt the day before, Syrian activists say, and another one a month ago.

Tammo had long been on the Syrian government's watch list, and has spent three years in prison for political opposition.

He was shot dead at home on Friday; Syrian activists who spoke with him less than an hour before his death say he told them he feared that he would soon be killed.

The Syrian state news agency, SANA, claimed that Tammo was killed by an "armed terrorist group," the same description the government applies to anti-regime activists who have demonstrated in cities across the country since March.

SANA reported on Monday that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Temmo was "assassinated ... because he rejected the calls for foreign interference." The killing, he claimed, aimed to "ignite sedition" in a province otherwise known for tolerance.

Regional and European officials blamed the Assad government.

"Mr. Tammo's death follows other targeted assassinations in the past days, which are totally unacceptable," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement. "These appalling crimes further add to the EU's grave concern over the situation in Syria."

New strategies for a dogged opposition

Despite the high price paid by Syrians like Tammo, and the Assad family's track record of brutality over more than 40 years in power – tens of thousands of opponents and Islamists were killed in the 1980s alone – activists still take to the streets.

"It's unbelievable what people are willing to do," says Ryan Gerety, an American who worked with a Syrian human rights lawyer in Damascus from March until three weeks ago. The opposition is very well organized, she says, and convinced that victory will come – one day.

"Now people are thinking more about strategies," says Ms. Gerety. "A lot of people thought it was enough to go to the street, and it's not."

Now activists are making their presence felt in the capital, for example by dying the water in fountains red to mark the blood of pro-democracy martyrs; by setting up speakers playing pro-revolution songs in public places; and spray painting anti-regime messages.

"When I was there, I felt so happy," says the Syrian student activist who recently left Qamishli for Istanbul. "If someone was killed in front of me, I was not afraid, because we were all there, on the same path. But here I feel more afraid because I don't know what is happening. Here we wait for news; before I was one who was giving it."

Poet Ibrahim Yusuf, speaking on Skype from Dubai, said he had spoken about "the struggle" with Tammo the night before he was murdered.

"When they killed him, [the regime] thought they had killed the revolution," Yusuf told the mourners. "But its fire has risen. Multi-ethnic Syrians: raise our voice, to make this regime step down."

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