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The Syrian Army sealed off the northwestern city of Banias – the latest hot spot for antigovernment protests – this weekend, even as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad assured his countrymen that Syria was on a path to "comprehensive reform." The government has cast the move as a defensive one, blaming the violence on foreigners and Syrian collaborators seeking to undermine the country's security and stability.
But activists are concerned that weekend crackdowns may hint at a harsher, larger crackdown to come later this week, the Guardian reported.
In Banias – a port city with an important oil refinery – and other cities where protesters have turned out, government security forces and soldiers have used brutal tactics to quell the demonstrations. The Guardian reported that, according to the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, more than 200 people have been killed since protests began several weeks ago. Thirty-seven were killed on Friday alone.
The Syrian government blames the unrest on "saboteurs," according to the state news agency Sana. It is now openly admitting – for the first time, according to the Guardian – that it is using force to put down protests. The Ministry of Interior defended its position in a statement Friday:
The Syrian authorities, in order to preserve the security of the country, citizens and the governmental and services establishments, will confront these people and those behind them according to the law, which specifies the conditions for using weapons.
The Ministry of Interior affirms that there is no more room for leniency or tolerance in enforcing law, preserving security of country and citizens and protecting general order under the pretext of demonstration, which we still consider a healthy state. However, we will not allow for deliberately confusing peaceful demonstration with vandalism, sowing discord, undermining the strong national unity, and attacking the basis of Syrian policy which is based on defending national standards and the people's interests."
Boosting the government's claims, nine soldiers were killed in an ambush near Banias on Sunday. The government blamed the killings on armed gangs, according to the Associated Press.
While President Barack Obama condemned the "abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government," as well as any use of violence by protesters, the US and international response has been muted in comparison with their statements on other Arab countries such as Yemen.
But Washington's relationship with Syria is a delicate one, with a US ambassador returning only this year after his predecessor was withdrawn in 2005 amid concerns of state-sponsored terrorism. Obama's administration has tried to woo Syria away from Iran and undermine its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which pose a threat to US ally Israel.
In a column published by The Huffington Post, former US ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg wrote that the White House's desire to engage Assad, while a reasonable effort, has ultimately been futile and should not prevent the US from taking a stronger stance against violence.
Aside from deploring Assad's use of deadly violence against his own people, President Obama needs to ratchet up the rhetoric against Assad and his regime to provide far more moral support to the protestors. If Obama could declare it was time for Qadaffi and Mubarak to go, this weekend's violence throughout Syria compels the White House to issue the same demand on Assad, with policy prescriptions to back that demand up.
The US appears to be waiting to see whether Assad will introduce reforms. Assad has attempted to put an end to protests by announcing that he is considering some of the central demands of protesters: the release of political prisoners and a lifting of the emergency law, in place since 1963.
But so far he has only made targeted concessions, such as granting citizenship to those in the Kurdish north who were previously labeled foreigners, CNN reported.
Many protesters are skeptical of Assad's promises of reform, which they have heard before. Many assume his promises will only last long enough for protests to lose steam, according to James Denselow, a Syria expert interviewed by Al Jazeera.
"When the Syrians say they are going to reform and they are going to open up things and this is the time, you have to question the intent and the timing. This is a regime that has been in power for decades ... we really have to wonder whether they are just looking to dissipate the protests and the momentum of these protests."