Unrest Erupts In Syria

Mideast street unrest heated up in Syria Monday, particularly in the southern city of Deraa. Host Melissa Block talks with the Reuters bureau chief Khaled Oweis in Damascus.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Over the weekend things heated up in Syria. In the southern city of Deraa, crowds burned down the headquarters of the countries ruling Ba'ath Party. Troops fired on demonstrators and four people were killed, according to Khaled Oweis. He is the Damascus bureau chief for Reuters. We reached him earlier today on Skype.

Mr. KHALED OWEIS (Damascus Bureau Chief, Reuters): Today was a significant day because for the first time in four days of unrest, the protests spread in southern Syria into the Horan Plain, which is between Jordan and Damascus. We had protests in three more towns surrounding the main city of Deraa in Horan, with basically the same pattern - hundreds of protesters chanting for freedom and demanding an end to corruption. And even having slogans in solidarity with the main city of Deraa, where these southern protests erupted four days ago.

BLOCK: Take us back to the roots of those protests. Why now and why in this part of southern Syria, in Deraa?

Mr. OWEIS: Yeah, I mean I think it took a spark. Deraa is a pretty unique place in that it's agricultural. But at the same time, there is a big weight on tribes and on reputations and on big families. And once you had the reports sweeping the Arab world, there was such of an effect in Deraa, especially among the young who started writing graffiti on the walls denouncing the government, demanding freedom, and using the same slogans they've heard on televisions and on radios that were chanted by millions in Egypt and Tunisia and even in neighboring Jordan.

So the authorities overreacted I think and they came down hard.

BLOCK: The Syrian authorities have detained 15 schoolchildren who had written slogans on walls. What's happened to those schoolchildren?

Mr. OWEIS: They release them today. But I think too late. And I think this is what we saw before in other countries in the Arab Middle East, not just Yemen or even Egypt, they always would react too late. You know, they would have years. Or in some cases, in Syria or in Egypt or in Tunis, decades to take steps to placate the population as far as politics.

BLOCK: What are the protesters in southern Syria demanding? What are they chanting as they're marching in the streets?

Mr. OWEIS: Yeah, they're very the same measured in what they are chanting. They want - Syria has been, I mean the southern region, the influence of the security apparatus, the, what we call here al-Mukhabarat, or the secret police, has been growing. And they've been interfering in everything. At one point, I don't think you can go to the toilet in Deraa without having their permission from the secret police. People got ticked off with this.

Now, the secret police in Deraa said that by cousin of President Bashar al-Assad. And they are not demanding the removal of Bashar. But one thing they are sure demanding is the removal of his cousin. So we can say that their demands are specific, but they also go at the heart of the Syrian system.

BLOCK: How do you expect the regime of Bashar al-Assad to respond? There had been sort of overtures made to the protesters. How do you expect him to respond now?

Mr. OWEIS: Yeah, I mean we saw the first response which has been the killing of four protesters, plus a child actually died today from inhaling tear gas. So I think now they've scaled back their use of force. But you have huge presence of the army's units, police in that region and all of them are carrying, you know, AK-47s and their hand is on the trigger.

So while they're allowing the protest to go ahead, potential for miscalculation is immense.

BLOCK: Khaled Oweis is a reporter with Reuters in Damascus. Mr. Oweis, thank you very much.

Mr. OWEIS: You're most welcome.

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