Syria witnessed its largest antiregime demonstrations across the country today since the popular uprising for greater freedoms began a month ago.
While the uprising has not yet reached the critical mass necessary to pose a serious threat to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, it is evident that the protests are spreading and intensifying. Antiregime demonstrations have become a daily occurrence, instead of being confined to Fridays. And they are no longer limited each day to the southern city of Deraa, where the rallies first began and which has become the epicenter of dissent.
Although the regime has offered some concessions, such as releasing detainees, forming a new government, and examining alternatives to the draconian state of emergency law, they have fallen far short of the demands of the protesters. Furthermore, the harsh suppression of the demonstrations by Syrian security forces, in which over 200 people have died according to human rights agencies, has served only to galvanize fresh protests.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday accused Syria of arbitrarily detaining hundreds of protesters across the country and subjecting them to torture and ill-treatment. HRW said it had interviewed 19 people along with families of some detainees. They reported having been beaten repeatedly with whips and cables and suffered electric shock torture. Most of them had been held in overcrowded cells and deprived of sleep, food, and water – in some cases for several days.
“There can be no real reforms in Syria while security forces abuse people with impunity,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director. “President Assad needs to rein in his security services and hold them to account for arbitrary arrests and torture.”
Revolution spreads to key cities of Aleppo, Hama
Dozens more people were reportedly detained Friday when protests erupted after noon prayers across the country. One man was reported killed in Deir ez Zor in eastern Syria by regime “thugs,” according to a post on the Syria Revolution Facebook page.
Other protests were reported in Latakia and Banias on the Mediterranean coast; the northern Sunni cities of Hama, Homs, and Aleppo; Deraa in the south, Qamishly and other Kurdish towns and villages in the northeast; and several towns around Damascus, the capital.
The emergence of protests in Hama and Aleppo and the Idlib province in northern Syria is a new and significant development. Aleppo is Syria’s largest city and is populated mainly by Sunnis though it has sizable Christian and Kurdish communities.
The Syrian opposition recognized early on the importance of mobilizing this key city as well as Homs and Hama further south. These cities were the backbone of a revolt 30 years ago by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement. The revolt was brutally crushed in Hama in 1982 and the Muslim Brotherhood decimated. Homs has witnessed some protests in recent days, but the addition of Aleppo and Hama into the growing number of towns and cities rising up around the country was welcomed by the opposition.
Don't want to miss the Monitor's best international stories? Sign up for our daily World Editor's Picks newsletter.
Analyst and diplomats in Beirut say that Assad will soon face a stark choice: either he will act upon his repeated promises of reform to dampen the revolt and encourage those Syrians who still believe the president is a reformer at heart, or he will intensify the crackdown – a step that could lead to civil war.
Such a war could potentially be similar to the conflict in Iraq following the 2003 invasion, pitting different sects against each other with meddling from Syria's neighbors.
Hariri's plans for unseating Assad exposed
Meanwhile the Lebanese have been watching the growing unrest in Syria with some trepidation, fearing that any instability in its powerful neighbor almost certainly will spill over into Lebanon. Saad Hariri, the caretaker Lebanese prime minister, has taken on an increasingly tough stance toward Syria since his coalition government was toppled in January by Syria’s Lebanese allies. He also has been critical of Syria’s allies, Iran and the militant Shiite Hezbollah movement based in Lebanon.
On Friday, the Lebanese Al-Akhbar daily newspaper, which is supportive of Hezbollah, published a 2006 US diplomatic cable from the WikiLeaks trove in which Hariri is quoted as saying that the Assad regime should be replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood administration.
Hariri’s highly sensitive comments were aired amid an escalating war of words this week between Syria and the anti-Syrian Future Movement, which is headed by Hariri. The Syrian authorities have publicly blamed foreign “infiltrators” for stirring sectarian unrest. On Wednesday, Syria TV aired the alleged confessions of three men, one of whom claimed to have been instructed by Jamal Jarrah, a Lebanese member of parliament affiliated with the Future Movement, to incite protests and form armed groups.
Mr. Jarrah denied the accusations, saying “interfering in Syria’s internal affairs is out of the question.” But Ali Abdel Karim Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, on Friday called on the Lebanese authorities to address the accusations against Jarrah.
Syria: Lebanon's well-being is tied up in ours
Mr. Ali additionally cautioned that Lebanon's well-being was directly tied to Syria's, a warning Syria has been seeking to drive home.
“If any harm comes to Syria, then Lebanon will be harmed. That is, if not more than [Syria],” he said.
In recent days, long lines of goods truck have built up at the Abboudiyah crossing on Lebanon’s northern border with Syria as part of heightened security measures by the Syrian security forces. Some 400 to 500 trucks were reported to be backed up as each vehicle was closely inspected before being permitted to enter Syria.
On Thursday, a vehicle carrying weapons was caught attempting to slip into Syria from northern Lebanon, according to Syrian television. The vehicle reportedly carried a number of shotguns. However, Ashraf Rifi, the head of Lebanon’s paramilitary Internal Security Forces, denied that the ISF had apprehended any vehicle smuggling arms into Syria, adding that he was unaware of any other Lebanese security agency having caught weapons smugglers.