Fresh Syrian protests test Assad's pledge to halt violence

Syrian activists organized fresh protests today under the rallying call 'the beginnings of victory' after Assad promised the UN on Wednesday that he would end his regime's brutal crackdown.

Ugarit via APTN/AP
In this image from amateur video made available by the Ugarit News group, a large crowd reportedly gathered in the Syrian town of Rastan on Wednesday demanding the execution of President Bashar Assad.

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Fresh Syrian protests today pose the first major test of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's assurance to the United Nations on Wednesday that he would halt military and police action. Syrian human rights groups, however, say Mr. Assad has already broken his promise.

Bolstered by increased international action, including US and European calls for Assad to step down, the Syrian protesters organized on Facebook under the rallying cry "the beginnings of victory," the BBC reports.

After months of conflicting reports about the fighting in Syria, which the Assad regime blamed on foreign terrorists and saboteurs, tomorrow the UN is scheduled to send in a humanitarian team to investigate the areas most affected by the killing. Assad promised "independent and unhindered access to all areas affected by violence" during a phone conversation with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday.

It remains to be seen whether continued protests will push Assad to make any dramatic shift in his handling of the conflict, however.

US and European officials said they don't expect Assad to resign, despite their demands, and some said they expected violence to intensify, rather than abate, the Wall Street Journal reports. Protesters in Syria welcomed the diplomatic move "with a mixture of relief that powerful allies were rallying to their side – and fear that it would provoke an even-more violent backlash from the government, which has argued it is fighting Islamist militants backed by a foreign plot."

"This is a truly baffling situation now," Louay Hussain, a writer and long-time opposition member, said in a telephone interview from Damascus. "The statements will raise the morale of the protesting street, but the authorities will cling on to it as proof of the foreign conspiracy they face."

The regime has continually referred to the protesters as "armed gangs," "foreign saboteurs," and "terrorists."

Syrian ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari said that the US and other world powers are "waging a diplomatic and humanitarian war" against Syria. "Show me an international law that allows anyone to question the legitimacy of any president," he said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The US is concerned about the possibility of retaliation by Assad's supporters in the form of another attack on the US Embassy in Damascus or a similar attack.

The Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union said that two protesters were killed Thursday night and security forces broke up a demonstration with machine guns, Reuters reports. Bloomberg reports that more than 300 people were arrested yesterday for protesting in a suburb of Damascus.

Security was also tight before Friday's midday prayers, according to Bloomberg. Mahmoud Mehri, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said that the calls for Assad to step down will "embolden people and strengthen the momentum of the rallies.”

Although the US and Europe have now turned against Assad, China and Russia – two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – pushed back against efforts to get the council's support for sanctions on Damascus and referral of the regime to the International Criminal Court.

CNN reports that Russia criticized the US and European calls for Assad's departure, saying they should have given Assad more time to implement the reforms that he promised.

Syria expert Joshua Landis writes on his blog Syria Comment that if Assad intended to negotiate or implement reforms, he would have done so already, when there was less to lose.

I find the notion that the Assad family will look for a soft landing hard to believe. From the opening days of this uprising I predicted that there was no “soft landing for this regime.” The arguments against Assad negotiating an end his regime are that: close to a million Syrians will lose a great deal when this regime goes down. Iran and Syria’s allies who are investing in the future of the regime will lose a lot. Had Bashar and his family been willing to cut their losses, they would have done so months ago, before the level of anger and possibility of revenge had risen to the present levels. If they negotiate today, most top figures will be unable to avoid the hangman’s noose.

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