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Syria’s Assad deploys army in port to keep order

DAMASCUS –
President Bashar al-Assad, facing the gravest crisis in his 11-year
rule, deployed the army for the first time in Syria’s main port of
Latakia after nearly two weeks of protests spread across the country.

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad bear flags and portraits
of the president as they demonstrate their support to their leader in
Damascus’ Old City. Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

Mr.
Assad, 45, who has made no direct public comment since protests started
sweeping Syria, was expected to address the nation shortly, officials
said, without giving further details.

Dozens have died in
pro-democracy demonstrations in the southern city of Deraa and nearby
Sanamein as well as Latakia, Damascus and other towns over the last
week. The government says unnamed armed groups, possibly backed by
foreign powers, are trying to stir sectarian conflict across Syria.

The
Interior Ministry urged citizens on state television to ignore
“untruthful” appeals in text messages and leaflets to join a rally in
Damascus’s Umayyad Square on Sunday. It said they should stay away for
their own safety.

The dispatch of troops to the streets of
Latakia on Saturday signals growing government alarm about the ability
of the security police to maintain order there. Latakia is a
potentially volatile mix of Sunni Muslims, Christians and the Alawites
who constitute Assad’s core support.

Its residential areas house large secret police complexes.

“There
is a feeling in Latakia that the presence of disciplined troops is
necessary to keep order,” one resident told Reuters. “We do not want
looting.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday the
United States deplored the bloodshed in Syria, but that a Libya-style
intervention should not be expected.

The unrest in Syria came to
a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for
scrawling graffiti inspired by pro-democracy protests across the Arab
world.

Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple
of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries, where
the Baath Party has been in power for nearly 50 years. Modern Syria
gained its independence from France in 1946.

Assad, a
British-educated eye doctor, pledged to look into granting greater
freedom but this has failed to dampen a protest movement emboldened by
uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban
told Al Jazeera television news that the emergency law hated by Syrian
reformists for the far-reaching powers it gives to security services
would be lifted, but did not give a timetable.

Lawyers say the
emergency law has been used by authorities to ban protest, justify
arbitrary arrests and closed courts and give free rein to the secret
police and security apparatus, which have all severely compromised the
rule of law.

BID TO DEFUSE PROTESTS
In another move
to placate protesters, Syrian authorities on Sunday released a lawyer,
Diana Jawabra, along with 15 others who were arrested for taking part
in a silent protest demanding the release of the children responsible
for the graffiti.

This follows news of the freeing of 260 political prisoners.

Mr.
Assad also faces calls to curb his pervasive security apparatus, free
political prisoners and reveal the fate of tens of thousands of
dissidents who disappeared in the 1980s.

There have also been
protests in Hama, a northern city where in 1982 the forces of President
Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, killed thousands of people and razed
much of the old quarter to put down an armed uprising by the Islamist
Muslim Brotherhood.

Middle East analysts do not rule out a harsh
crackdown to crush the demonstrations, while others say Syrian
protesters have broken the fear barrier.

Syria’s establishment is
dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of
Shi’ite Islam to which the Assads belong, a fact that causes resentment
among Sunni Muslims who make up some three-quarters of the population.
Latakia is mostly Sunni Muslim but has significant numbers of Alawites.

“An
official source said attacks by armed elements on the families and
districts of Latakia in the last two days resulted in the martyrdom of
10 security forces and civilians and the killing of two of the armed
elements,” SANA news agency said.

The source said 200 people,
most of whom were from the security forces, had been wounded. Rights
activists told Reuters at least six people had been killed in Latakia
in two days.

“Decades of pent-up feelings are generating these
confrontations. But this is not a mass Sunni-Alawite strife,” the
Latakia resident told Reuters by telephone. “Cooler heads are
prevailing in Latakia.”

Nadim Houry, at New York-based Human
Rights Watch, said four police were reported to have been killed while
trying to separate pro- and anti-government groups, “apparently … by
armed thugs close to the brother of the president”.

“A Latakia
resident told me that the police were killed because they tried to
separate them. I can’t tell if it is true and we have not confirmed
it,” Houry said.

“So far the army has sided clearly with the
authorities, like in Latakia, where the army has deployed,” he added,
raising concern that the “killing of civilians will continue unless
real reforms are enacted and security forces cease using live fire.”

STATE OF EMERGENCY
Deraa
is a bastion of Sunni Muslim tribes who resent power and wealth amassed
by the Alawite minority. During protests, a statue of the late Hafez
al-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years until his
death in 2000, was toppled.

There were at least three funerals
for those killed in the unrest in villages around Deraa on Sunday,
which passed off peacefully with no security in evidence. Mourners in
one of the funerals chanted: “The people want the downfall of the
regime.”

Asked about security forces opening fire in recent days, government spokeswoman Reem Haddad told Al Jazeera on Sunday:

“The
security forces were given very strict orders not to shoot at anyone
and they did not shoot at anyone at all until those people shot at them
and at other citizens.

“Now obviously when you have people
shooting then it becomes a matter of national security and you can’t
just have that happening,” she said, adding that she suspected foreign
powers were involved in the unrest.

The United States, France and
Britain have urged Mr. Assad to refrain from violence. A week ago they
launched a UN-backed air campaign to protect opponents of Libya’s
Muammar Gaddafi.

WEB OF CONFLICTS
But analysts see
little chance that heavily armed Syria, which is part of an
anti-Western, anti-Israel alliance with Iran and sits within a web of
conflicts across the region, may face the sort of foreign intervention
seen in North Africa.

Syria also has links to the Palestinian
Islamist militant group Hamas and the Lebanese Shi’ite political and
military group Hezbollah.

In its first comment on the unrest in
Syria, Hezbollah’s al-Manar television said Syria had arrested some
people it said were behind the Latakia clashes, including Lebanese
citizens.

Assad was welcomed as the fresh face of reform when he
replaced his father, a master of Middle Eastern politics who brooked no
dissent at home and made refusal to bend on the Arab-Israeli conflict
the heart of Syrian policy for 30 years.

Diplomats say resistance
from the “old guard” slowed the political liberalisation promised by
Assad, an articulate and mild-mannered man, while foreign policy
confrontations upset efforts to improve Syria’s ties with the West.

Among
the targets of popular anger have been Maher al-Assad, a brother of the
president and head of the Republican Guard, a special security force,
and Rami Makhlouf, a cousin who runs big businesses and is accused by
Washington of corruption.

© Thomson Reuters 2011

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