Syrian bloodshed continues as regime turns guns on mourners

Syrian security forces opened fire Saturday on protesters mourning the scores of demonstrators killed a day earlier in a deadly repeat of violence against an increasingly bold antigovernment movement.

"Stop! Stop!" a voice from a mosque loudspeaker is heard calling out in a video on the Internet as security forces in a white pickup spray gunfire on mourners in the Damascus suburb of Barze.

Witnesses reported that 12 people died in Saturday's violence.

A compilation of names of the dead by human rights activists showed that at least 107 people were killed Friday in the suburbs of Damascus and smaller cities and towns around the country as forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad attempted to crush a democracy movement inspired by revolutions and uprisings sweeping the Arab world.

On Saturday, two members of parliament representing the southern city of Dara, as well as the local religious leader, resigned over the killings, a rare crack within the country's political elite amid protests that have seen the security forces maintain an unflinching loyalty to Assad and his ruling clique.

The five-week-long mass protests have been getting closer to the heart of the Syrian capital. Protests have erupted several times in the Harasta suburb of Damascus, and deaths were reported Friday and Saturday in Barze.

But in the center of the capital, an uneasy calm prevails. Cafes and restaurants are half-filled, and people speak in hushed tones and coded euphemisms about the "situation" in the country.

Security forces are everywhere. Police ride by on motorcycles, walkie-talkies clamped to their ears, and plainclothes intelligence agents in leather jackets and suits hover at every corner.

"If you look at Damascus, you feel that this is an occupied city," said Yassin Haj Saleh, a writer and outspoken dissident who recently went into hiding in fear of reprisals by the regime. "Not only tons of security, it is surrounded by military camps."

In videos posted on the Internet on Saturday, thousands of mourners in Barze and another Damascus suburb, Duma, appeared somber but defiant, chanting, "The people want the overthrow of the regime!" They marched down narrow streets holding coffins aloft, some raising clenched fists.

The gunfire erupted without warning.

A witness who gave his first name as Ihsan told The Times that snipers in civilian clothes positioned on rooftops in Duma opened fire on the mourners, killing at least four.

"We are living in a real war," he said. "We haven't been able to reach the graveyard yet because snipers and security forces in uniform are shooting at the funeral procession from rooftops and the streets."

A general strike had been called in Duma in a furious response to Friday's crackdown, and protesters expected new assaults.

Protesters in the countryside tear down Assad posters, but the streets of central Damascus are filled with pictures of him, warning people to stay away from chaos.

One street poster shows Assad dressed in a uniform and looking through a pair of binoculars, a tank by his side. "Yes to power and endurance," it reads.

Some Damascus residents continue to support the government, and others dismiss the demonstrations as isolated incidents. One shop employee said that though he was not a fan of the regime, he'd rather "live with the pain he knows" than face an uncertain future.

Still others find themselves somewhere in the middle, apprehensive about joining the protest movement but skeptical about the possibility of reaching a settlement between the two sides.

But during a reporter's recent visit to Syria, another Damascus resident likened the change sweeping the region to a cracking dam, with the pressure building and the outcome seemingly inevitable.

"If one of our friends would have told us three months ago that the fear among the Syrian people would disappear, we would have taken him or her to the mental hospital," he said.

"What is happening now is greater than great."

Sandels is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World