Posted by Joshua on Sunday, July 24th, 2011
Hama Protests Swell in Syria
By NOUR MALAS in Dubai and A WALL STREET JOURNAL REPORTER in Damascus
Tens of thousands of people protested undeterred in Hama on Friday as a government crackdown in Homs, where sectarian violence and defected military conscripts pose a new threat to the government, drew a stark contrast between the two epicenters of Syria’s uprising.
President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces showed relative restraint Friday, with seven people reported killed across Syria, including one in Homs, compared with at least 24 killed the prior Friday, which has become the biggest day for protests on the Arab street.
But the regime’s withdrawal six weeks ago from Hama, the site of a brutal crackdown in 1982, remains a central question in its response. Some diplomats and analysts say a national revulsion of that event has repelled the regime from acting in the city. After prayers Friday, large crowds of protesters lined up Hama in coordinated attire of red, white, and black in a human formation of Syria’s flag.
Thirty miles south, in Homs, smaller crowds of protesters dodged gunfire Friday, with many residents staying home after a bloody week in which activists estimate as many 40 people were killed. Tanks fired mortars in two Homs neighborhoods on Thursday, residents said.
Unlike Hama, which has a conservative Sunni population, Homs is a microcosm of Syria’s sectarian makeup, with a mix of Alawites and Christians among its Sunni majority. Their largely calm coexistence appeared to implode last weekend, when armed sectarian fighting drew a harsh response from Mr. Assad’s forces, who also faced off against some mostly Sunni army defectors, residents said.
One of those defected soldiers said a town north of the city, al-Rastan, has turned into a de facto base for young army conscripts who have defected to avoid orders to shoot protesters.
“There are daily fights between the defected men and the army in al-Rastan, just small bouts of 15 or 20 minutes,” First Lt. Housam, who consented to giving his first name only, said by satellite phone from Homs.
On Thursday, a group of 14 defectors fought the army and security forces in the Bab Siba’a neighborhood of Homs, killing 20 of them and destroying four of their tanks and seven armored personnel carriers, Lt. Housam said. “We decided to intervene on behalf of the people,” he said.
He said the group of defected conscripts, which includes three soldiers, are fighting with the light weapons—machine guns, Kalashinkovs, and rocket-propelled grenades—that they kept with them.
It wasn’t possible to independentLY confirm his account.
Army defections remain limited across Syria, and have so far only drawn from the low ranks, leaving the largely-Alawite and higher ranks loyal to the regime.
But Hom’s sectarian fighting and volatile religious mix appears to have served as a pretext for the regime to strike the city again rather than try to negotiate a truce as it is attempting in Hama.
Both Homs and Hama, Syria’s third and fourth largest cities respectively, are strategically located between the capital Damascus, and Aleppo, two bastions of loyalty to Mr. Assad’s government.
Losing control of both cities would hamper the ability to move troops from Damascus to Aleppo, creating “an island in the country that is completely out of the regime’s control, which would be unprecedented,” says Exclusive Analysis, a London-based intelligence and political risk firm.
Taking no chances with its strongholds, the regime tightened its grip on Damascus on Friday. Residents of the capital’s Qaboun district said machine gun-wielding security forces lined the streets and the entrances to the area’s two major mosques, to prevent protests after the Islamic prayer.
Mr. Assad has struggled to formulate a clearer response in Syria’s other major cities to over four months of antigovernment protests, especially as international pressure has mounted to stop the violence. The protests have posed the biggest challenge to Mr. Assad’s 11-year rule, and his family’s four-decade grip on Syria.
That family legacy is partly why Hama developed into an exception in this uprising, diplomats and analysts say. In 1982, Mr. Assad’s father crushed an uprising there led by the Muslim Brotherhood that left at least 10,000 people dead. When Mr. Assad’s forces killed at least 72 people in one weekend in June, the outrage visible in reactionary protests across Syria forced a withdrawal from Hama that has left its residents to manage the city’s affairs largely free of security oversight since then.
“What saved Hama in 2011 is the 1982 massacre, the heavy history behind the regime,” said Wissam Tarif, head of the Syria-focused rights group Insan. “Homs does not have 1982 hanging over it, so the regime continues the crackdown.”
Hama is still seen as a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, though members of the banned party live largely in exile or are imprisoned in Syria. The unusual coherence and organization of Hama’s street protest movement—from neighborhood councils to civilian checkpoints—appear to reflect the organizational capabilities of Syria’s largest and best-organized opposition group, once a political party represented in parliament.
Young protest coordinators deny that the Brotherhood in Hama has any organizational role, and even say they harbor anger towards the movement for creating the rebellion that led to the harsh crackdown in the 1980s. Other Syrian activists attribute Hama’s success in sustaining the country’s largest peaceful protests to a sense of community forged out of a scarred history, and efforts by moderates from both sides of the political divide to make sure the regime doesn’t strike it again.
Some residents in the city say attempts to negotiate with delegations of local leaders led by Mustafa Abdel-Rahman, the imam of Serjawi mosque, may have some success. But others remain adamant that nothing short of regime change will stop protests, after past negotiations brought limited results.
One businessman in Hama who supports the protest movement pointed to a deal last week by which some checkpoints were removed from the main roads but only 50 protesters were released of the hundreds detained.
“We do not trust the imam,” he said. “He does not speak for us all.”
Write to Nour Malas at email@example.com
Video of a “special forces defector” in Rastan telling his story. This “defector” from the special forces in Rastan says he personally has witnessed the killing of some 500 innocent civilians in Rastan by Syrian forces, Shabbiha and Iranian snipers. He says he has joined other soldiers in Rastan to fight the Syrian Army.