Mass protests broke out in Damascus for the first time today, as Syrian democracy advocates called on the international community to put aside misplaced anxiety about post-Assad chaos or Islamist influence and support the opposition.
Security forces fired tear gas and attacked demonstrators with batons as tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters converged on the city center from the capital’s impoverished suburbs.
Citizens mobilized in unprecedented numbers in several cities across the country, chanting “Freedom!” and calling for an end to the decades-old state of emergency. The month-long wave of protests shows no sign of losing momentum despite the deaths of at least 200 demonstrators at the hands of the security forces.
The scale of today’s turnout may be less important than the fact that the protests have now spread to the major urban centers of Aleppo and Hama. Some observers have suggested that the protest movement needs to get the support of Aleppo’s affluent merchant class to secure socio-economic leverage. Hama is the symbolically significant city in which Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood was more or less eliminated in the 1982 massacred in which up to 30,000 were killed on the orders of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad.
The security forces attacked marchers from several Damascus suburbs as they tried to reach the capital’s main Abbasside Square. “I counted 15 mukhabarat (secret police) busloads. They went into the alleyways just north of the square chasing protesters and yelling ‘you pimps, you infiltrators, you want freedom? we will give it to you’,” an eye-witness told Reuters:
Another witness who accompanied the protesters from the suburb of Harasta said thousands chanted “the people want the overthrow of the regime” and tore down numerous posters of President Bashar al-Assad plastered along the way.
Thousands of protesters in Douma held up yellow cards in “a soccer-inspired warning to the regime.” “This is our first warning, next time we will come with the red cards,” a protester told The Associated Press.
In an attempt to defuse the protest movement, beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad announced a new cabinet, an amnesty for a select group of political prisoners and met with community leaders from the southern city of Dara’a, the catalyst and heart of the current upsurge.
The new cabinet is unlikely to appease the pro-democracy movement, observers believe.
It was not clear how many prisoners would be released in the announced amnesty. “No one even knows how many there are. Figures are never released.” said Ziadeh, a former Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today urged Syria to halt its lethal crackdown and respond to its people’s democratic aspirations.
“The Syrian government has not addressed the legitimate demands of the Syrian people,” she said. “It is time for the Syrian government to stop repressing their citizens and start responding to their aspirations.”
Assad will soon need to confront a fundamental dilemma, analysts say: initiate genuine reform to defuse the protests or accentuate repression – and risk provoking civil war. The fundamental question, The Economist argues, is whether Assad can initiate change “without undercutting the foundations of his authoritarian regime.”
Misplaced fears of Islamist influence should not be allowed to deprive Syria’s protest movement of the international support it needs and deserves, according to exiled democracy advocate Ammar Abdulhamid, director of the Tharwa Foundation, and Ken Ballen, president of Terror Free Tomorrow, an NGO that monitors extremism.
“That there exists a religious dimension to the protest movement does not make Syria’s revolution a sectarian or an extremist one,” they write. “After decades of oppression and stifling of free expression and assembly, mosques have become the only places where Syrian people can gather somewhat freely.”
Muslims should not be expected to drop their religious convictions in order to be deemed moderate, they contend:
This confusion between religiosity and political extremism, more often witnessed when Muslims are involved, muddies the waters and dehumanizes hundreds of millions of people whose basic aspirations are no different than those of adherents of other faiths: to lead free and dignified lives.
‘Indeed, Syria’s revolution is about freedom, justice and dignity, organized and championed by people from different national and religious backgrounds and representing the entire spectrum of Syria’s population,” they conclude.