Dozens of civilian protesters, including an 11-year old boy, were killed by Syrian security forces today as tens of thousands of demonstrators mobilized in the largest and bloodiest of pro-democracy mobilizations yet seen in the country. (Video footage of the protests can be viewed on the blog Syrian Revolution 2011 and Youtube’s SHAMSNN.)
As many as 70 protesters were shot dead as security forces fired live rounds and tear-gas to disperse protesters in several cities, including Homs, Deraa and the capital, Damascus, as they called for “Freedom” and an end to the Ba’athist regime.
The killings of civilians occurred in several parts of Damascus, as well as in Hama, Latakia and Homs, and the southern town of Izra’a, an official of Sawasiah, a human rights monitor, told Reuters. The group was founded by jailed human rights lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani.
The Obama administration condemned the killings.
“We deplore the use of violence,” said a White House spokesman. The U.S. called on the regime to “cease and desist in the use of violence against protesters” and to follow through on promised reforms.
But exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid suggested on Twitter that President Bashar al-Assad has resolved on a repressive strategy focused on pre-empting protests by “laying siege to hot spots” where protesters have previously rallied.
The activists coordinating the protests today issued their first joint manifesto, insisting that “freedom and dignity slogans cannot be achieved except through peaceful democratic change,” while demanding an end to the Ba’ath Party’s political monopoly and a transition to democracy.
The Local Co-ordination Committees demanded “the completion of the constitutional amendments that will allow for a democratic transition of Syria to become a respected, multi-national, multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant society,” in a statement sent to Reuters.
“All prisoners of conscience must be freed. The existing security apparatus has to be dismantled and replaced by one with specific jurisdiction and which operates according to law,” the statement read.
“This includes the repeal of Constitutional Article 8, which would limit the number of presidential terms to two sessions,” a statement read.
The protest movement caught political activists unawares, said Abdulhamid, a Washington-based democracy advocate. Some opposition groups and cyber activists planned to launch better prepared and coordinated protests in the summer, but “ordinary people spontaneously took over and took to the streets in March.”
A dissident network of “mostly secular, intellectual liberals” is connected to the domestic protest movement, he says:
A group of 10, mostly inside Syria, slowly connected with more and more people across the country, through regional networks including in mosques. Several of the dissidents – who requested anonymity – agreed that while connecting with religious networks was important, their movement was secular.
A coalition of thirteen Arab NGOs and human rights groups today condemned the Arab League for supporting Syria’s candidacy for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The league’s backing “shows flagrant disregard for the feelings and rights of the Syrian people, who have broken the barrier of fear and risen up in revolt,” said the statement.
Some analysts insist that the protest movement has yet to secure majority support, in part because most Syrians either have a vested interest in the status quo or fear that ending the Ba’athists’ one-party rule will unleash sectarian violence.
“The fact is that the Syrian society is divided on religious (sectarian) and socio economic (or level of connections) grounds,” says Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis. “You are for the leadership if are a Christian/Alawi/well-off/connected. You are against if you are a Syria-based Sunni/not wealthy/not connected.”
But the demonstrators have taken pains to dispute claims that their demands will unleash latent sectarianism. Today’s rallies were dubbed the “Good Friday” protests on a Facebook page calling for people to take to the streets and a website portrays Christian and Muslim images under the rubric of “one heart, one hand, one goal.”
Despite depictions of Syria as incorrigibly authoritarian, the country has experienced democratic rule and periodic political and social liberalization, notes analyst Radwan Ziadeh.
“Between 1949 and 1958, the country was governed by liberal democratic institutions, despite four military coups,” he told a meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy. “Political culture thrived with over 270 newspapers and magazines in the country and, in 1951, Syria became the first Arab country to grant women suffrage. When the Ba’ath Party rose to power in 1963, the Third Republic swept away these democratic institutions.”
Reports suggest that opposition groups have “learned well the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt, harnessing the power of social media to mobilize and direct rallies and to disseminate information to the outside world.”
But they are well aware that new communications technologies also allow the authorities to monitor dissidents and “many young activists meet in homes during the week, rather than risk detection by going online to organize protests.”
“The meetings usually take place in the homes of single people,” one protester notes. “Organizing committees talk to people, give them slogans, write banners and tell people where to meet and when.”