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Dozens reported killed as Syrians continue protests

Thousands of antigovernment protesters marched in Damascus, Homs and other Syrian cities Friday in opposition to President Bashar Assad, chanting, “These are the last days of your season.”

Security forces responded by firing on protesters in several cities. Dozens of people were killed, with the toll particularly high in Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city and the site of a bloody crackdown ordered by Assad’s father nearly 30 years ago. Snipers reportedly fired from rooftops at thousands of protesters. The reports could not be independently verified because Western journalists are barred from entering the country.

Months after pro-democracy protesters unseated repressive regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, the so-called Arab Spring appears to have turned into a brutal stalemate in Syria. Assad has not been able to crush the protests; demonstrators take to the streets daily but have failed to gain enough popular support to topple him.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm Friday over the violence in Syria, which has reportedly claimed at least 70 lives in the last week, and called for independent and transparent investigations of all the killings. Human rights groups say 1,000 people have been killed in the 11-week uprising.

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Analysts say that Syria will play an important role in shaping the legacy of the regional reform movement, and that the opposition has the potential to influence other countries where uprisings also have stalled, such as Bahrain and Yemen.

“Many other countries are watching to see if they achieve regime change,” said Mohammed Masri, a researcher at Jordan University’s Center for Strategic Studies in Amman. “If they are successful, it could bring new momentum to the Arab Spring.”

“There are now two roads,” Masri said, “The road of Egypt and Tunisia, and the other, which is a brutal and bloody one.”

In Yemen’s capital, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded Friday when rivals in his clan fired rockets at his compound. In Bahrain, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters two days after authorities lifted emergency rule. Activists said no major injuries were reported in Bahrain, where the protesters marched on Pearl Square, the center of earlier demonstrations against the Sunni monarchy.

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Masri said that unlike the stalled movements elsewhere, the situation in Syria was in stalemate because opposition leaders had failed to set a clear agenda early on to reassure Syrian and international leaders that the new government they are fighting for will be democratic.

Syria’s religious leaders have yet to throw their support behind protesters, the way Muslim clerics and Coptic Christian priests did in Egypt, he said. Among those particularly fearful of change are Assad’s powerful Alawite community, a small Shiite sect that makes up about 10% of Syria’s 20 million people.

Assad’s father, President Hafez Assad, crushed a rebellion in Hama by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, killing thousands, and the memory of that discourages some from joining the protests.

“The more blood that is spilled, the more the demonstrators insist that Syria move toward democratic change,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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Ammar Abdulhamid, who took part in a gathering of Syrian dissidents in Turkey this week, said he had thought that the meeting would energize the protest movement, and that eventually residents of Damascus and Aleppo would join.

“The noose is tightening on the regime,” he said. “As long as protests continue and the economy is affected, and messages are sent that people of diverse backgrounds are joining, I think we will reach a tipping point.”

Other analysts disagreed.

“The regime will go to any length to crush the reform movement because reform in Syria means settling scores with the Alawite community,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. Syria’s military, unlike Egypt’s, will never agree to form a transitional government, he said.

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Assad’s regime has systematically weakened the protesters, isolating and bombarding them. As in Bahrain, as casualties have increased, the number of protesters has decreased, he said, and fear is spreading, particularly among the urban middle class.

“The regime arrests people, tortures them and releases them as messengers of fear,” he said.

Syrian security forces cut off Internet access to many major cities again Friday, contributing to fear and the news blackout.

“There’s been telling testimony from people going out to protest that they fear this will be their last day,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “We’ve been spoiled by Tunisia and Egypt. Those were extraordinary cases for the history books. Syria could be months and months.”

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Assad promised a “national dialogue” and amnesty for protesters this week, but then followed up by continuing the crackdown.

“We see what happens when regimes decide to fight back, particularly when there is little outside leverage. It can take a long, long time,” Shaikh said. “There is a danger that the Arab Spring will go into a freeze.”

Mohammed Abu Rumman, a columnist and political researcher at Jordan University, said Assad’s regime would be more influenced by international political pressure than by protests. Opposition leaders spoke out against international intervention this week, but he said that’s largely because they are trying to counter government propaganda that paints them as pawns of Western nations and Israel.

Last week, Abu Rumman met with members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and urged them to make it clear to international powers that have so far opposed international intervention in Syria, particularly Russia and China, that they are fighting for democracy, not a religious state.

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He predicted that the reform movement will spread, but said that Syria is showing how difficult it will be. “They can’t stop the Arab Spring,” he said.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writer Hennesy-Fiske reported from Cairo and special correspondent Sandels from Beirut.


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