DAMASCUS, Syria — A tense calm, punctuated by occasional violence against civilians, prevailed on Thursday, a day after the Syrian regime stepped up its crackdown on restive areas.
In the three main flashpoints — Daraa in the south, the coastal city of Banias and Homs in the west — tanks and troops slowly began to withdraw. They started to pull out of Daraa on May 5 and out of Bania and Homs on Thursday.
But Syrians are bracing for what they expect will be renewed, and deadly, clashes on Friday. Residents in Damascus said they were waiting to gauge the current climate and strength of the anti-government movement by the size and number of Friday’s protests — and the government reaction to them.
At least 24 protesters have been killed in the last two days, including 13 in the village of Hara outside Daraa, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, told Bloomberg News on Thursday. Troops were also being deployed on Thursday to Hama, the site of the brutal 1982 government massacre aimed at crushing the Muslim Brotherhood.
Anti-government protests began in cities throughout Syria on March 18. Since then, more than 800 people have been killed and at least 10,000 detained, with stadiums used as makeshift prisons, according to human rights organizations and witnesses.
The government rejects those claims, saying instead that 70 civilians and about 100 soldiers and policemen have died. Officials at the country’s Interior Ministry told state media on Thursday that 3,713 people, who were “involved in riots,” have turned themselves in. The ministry had previously said that protesters who turned themselves over to police voluntarily would be exempt from punishment.
Authorities also dispersed a pro-democracy protest of about 2,000 students at the University of Aleppo late Wednesday. It is the first large-scale gathering to have amassed in the city center of either Damascus or Aleppo, the country’s two largest cities.
Crucially, the urban centers of Damascus and Aleppo have remained relatively quiet, with the government successfully using trucks, burning rubbish and concrete slabs to prevent access from restive suburbs into the downtown areas. The efforts have prevented symbolic and large-scale gatherings akin to the one in Egypt’s Tahrir Square that led to ouster of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
“I don't want to sound gloomy, but things are really bad and definitely going to get worse,” a Syrian engineering student from Damascus said. “The regime is willing to go really too far to quell this uprising.”
While many people expressed anger and condemned the regime’s tactics, others in Damascus said they believed the government position that the violence is the work of foreign, fundamentalist instigators. One man, a father of three from Homs, said he witnessed, while peering through window blinds in his office, “a woman
dressed all in black with a Kalishnakov open fire on a group of security men sitting in a car.”
Such stories are traded almost as commonly as tales of police brutality. With food prices skyrocketing, offices closing and hotels sitting empty, even Syrians who are not protesting or subject to impromptu searches from the country’s ubiquitous secret police are suffering. Some blame the government; many others blame the protesters and are calling for a crackdown similar to the one that took place in Hama in 1982.
The international community, meanwhile, is roundly condemning the regime’s use of violence. On Monday, the EU announced it was implementing sanctions targeting 13 of the regime’s top officials, not including President Bashar al-Assad.
On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking in Geneva, called for “President Assad to heed the calls of the people for reform and freedom, and to desist from excessive force and the mass arrest of peaceful demonstrators.”
Ban urged Syria to cooperate with the U.N. Human Rights Council’s mission to probe alleged abuses. Syria has dropped its bid for a seat on the council this year.
The regime has made clear that it plans to continue using force to crush the uprising while simultaneously asserting that it is undergoing the called-for reforms. Parliamentary elections and new local administration laws are planned for next month. Although it repealed its 48-year-old state of emergency in April and appointed a new government, extrajudicial arrests and other restrictions have increased.
The Syrian embassy in London issued a statement on Wednesday asserting its reform plans and also disputing reports that Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad had fled with her children to the United Kingdom.
“Mrs. al-Assad would never leave Syria under any circumstances during this intimate process of national reform and development,” Sami Khiyami, Syria's ambassador to the U.K., said in the statement. “The entirety of the Syrian leadership is responding to the legitimate grievances of the people with an ambitious reform agenda as recently outlined by the president.”
But regime insiders paint a different picture. On May 10, The New York Times published a story with Rami Makhlouf, the billionaire and cousin of the president who is among the anti-government protesters’ most reviled characters and is a target of the EU sanctions. Makhlouf threatened instability if his family’s regime were to fall and confirmed that the government plans to use force to crush the uprising, saying: “The decision of the government now is that they decided to fight.”
“It was somewhat surreal to read the interview with Rami Makhlouf, who, after all, is only a citizen, with no official office, speaking for the state as if he possessed rights of ownership,” said a foreign scholar with years of experience in Syria, who asked to remain anonymous. “These people have overplayed their hands, and do not even realize it yet.”
Most Syrians interviewed — both pro- and anti-government — agreed that the conflict has yet to reach its climax.
“It’s going to calm down a bit, but let us wait for a surprise to happen,” one Damascus resident said.