Syrian activists and security forces brace for protests

Syrian authorities have intensified a campaign to detain the same opposition activists with whom they recently vowed to begin a dialogue, as the nation braced for another potentially bloody weekend of violence against those opposed to the autocratic rule of President Bashar Assad.

Security forces loyal to Assad continued their siege of the restive city of Hama on Thursday. A witness said that water and electricity had been cut in large parts of the city and that armored vehicles had surrounded the entry points, allowing only women and children to flee what appears to be an impending military assault. At least 20 people were injured when security forces fired on protesters on a bridge, activists said.

Assad’s deputies had promised to begin a much touted dialogue Sunday with critics and opponents of the regime, which is dominated by minority Alawites, a small Shiite Muslim sect. But it was unclear whom in the opposition they would speak with; activists said the government was now systematically rounding up many of the young grass-roots activists leading the demonstrations that have rocked the country, leaving only a few older members of long-tolerated opposition groups.

But even among those largely ineffectual intellectuals, many have been arrested, including Mohammad Saeed, a resident of Hama and one of the signatories to the Damascus Declaration, a 2005 call for reform by opposition figures.


Hozan Ibrahim, a Europe-based Syrian activist affiliated with the grass-roots Local Coordination Committees, estimated that more than 100 people have been arrested in the Damascus suburb of Domeir alone since Monday, and with perhaps a total of as many as 300 people since the weekend.

Among those arrested were relatives of known activists, including the 14-year-old son of a protest leader.

“They’re taking everyone and they’re doing house raids and making arbitrary arrests,” Ibrahim said. “People under 18 have also been arrested, 14- and 15-year olds.”

Activists also reported mass detentions in the northern town of Jisr Shughur, the surrounding province of Idlib, the southern city of Dara and the central city of Homs, the country’s third largest.

“Definitely lots of activists have been arrested,” said one activist in Syria, who declined to be identified in fear for his life. “And if they couldn’t arrest them they took some of their family as a hostage so they can turn themselves in. They’ve been looking for active people who’ve been organizing and leading the demonstrations. At the same time there is a massive wave of random arrests, as well.”

Since Monday, the Syrian army has been struggling to gain control of neighborhoods in Hama where activists have set up barriers and checkpoints to bar security forces. Elders and dignitaries rejected requests by the army to enter the city to arrest specific activists.

Protesters have informally dubbed Friday’s call for mass protests across the country as a day of “no dialogue,” insisting that the government’s call for talks is an attempt to deflect intense international pressure over the nearly four-month crackdown on public protests. According to estimates, more than 1,400 people have been killed, most of them unarmed protesters.

“Kill and arrest by two hands and talk about dialogue with the mouth,” said Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer and human rights activist in Damascus. “That will not do any good for sure.”


In Hama, where thousands died in a 1982 uprising that was crushed by then-President Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, residents and others called for a general strike.

Video posted on the Internet showed row after row of shuttered shops in the cities of Homs and in towns in Idlib province, where thousands of Syrians have fled across the nearby border into Turkey to escape government security forces.

Both activists and Syrian security forces expect further bloodshed during protests after weekly prayers Friday.

“Syrian security and army will face demonstrators and saboteurs with an iron fist with the expectation of a large number of victims,” a Syrian security official told The Times.


Sandels is a special correspondent.