Syrian security forces and tanks have returned to the city of Hama, storming houses and arresting activists after giving protesters nearly free reign in the city for a month, allowing one of the largest protests of the uprising to take place there on Friday.
Security forces withdrew from Hama a month ago after activists say at least 70 people were killed during a protest. It was one of the bloodiest days of Syria’s uprising against the autocratic government of Bashar al-Assad, in which around 1,500 people have died so far. Since the withdrawal, the government crackdown on protesters has eased somewhat, and the government appears to be trying to pacify the opposition. Last week President Assad allowed opposition activists to gather for a conference on reform in Damascus, and the government has offered to hold a national dialogue to start next week. But some interpret the return of security forces to Hama as a sign that a new crackdown is beginning.
Reuters reports that security forces stormed houses in Hama Monday, while thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, blocking roads and burning tires near the center of the city. Reuters quotes a witness who said at least 30 buses full of soldiers drove into Hama Monday morning. He said the security forces in the buses began firing randomly. CNN reports that 25 to 30 activists were arrested.
The Wall Street Journal reports that tanks and armored personnel carriers moved into Hama on Sunday, and residents could hear gunfire. Security forces arrested people on the outskirts of the city, and communications appeared to be cut Sunday. The Journal reports that the renewed violence, after nearly a month of restraint in the city, may mark the beginning of another campaign to crush dissent.
Hama was the site of one of the largest demonstrations of Syria’s uprising Friday, when more than 100,000 people poured into the streets to call for Assad to step down. Assad then fired Hama’s governor. Hama is a city with a history of dissent and brutal government response: in 1982, then-ruler Hafez Al Assad, Bashar’s father, sent the military into Hama to put down an armed insurrection by the Muslim Brotherhood. The military crushed the city, killing at least 10,000 people.
But while security forces have been notably absent from Hama for the past month, they continued to punish dissent north of Hama, particularly in the province of Idlib. Agence France-Presse reports that eight people were wounded Monday in Idlib, and security forces have sent tanks into two towns on the Turkish border. In recent weeks, thousands of Syrians have fled the crackdown into Syria. AFP also reports that security forces killed two people and wounded eight near Damascus Sunday night.
Reuters reports that Syria’s opposition, weak from years of suppression, is divided over how to respond to the government’s call for dialogue. With over a thousand killed by security forces since protests began, many activists reject any dialogue until Assad is gone, while others maintain that dialogue is the only feasible way forward.