Unrest Continues To Spread Across Syria

The latest confrontations in Syria took place over the weekend in the coastal city of Latakia. Phil Sands, a reporter for The National, an English-language newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, talks to Renee Montagne about the unrest in Syria.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Syria, unrest continues to spread and so too the killing of protesters. The latest confrontations took place over the weekend in the coastal city of Latakia. That port city has been a stronghold of the ruling Baath party. For the latest, we reached Philip Sands in the capital, Damascus. He's a correspondent for the English-language newspaper The National.

Thank you for joining us.

Mr. PHILIP SANDS (Reporter, The National): Hi. Hello.

MONTAGNE: Can you tell us what exactly happened in Latakia?

Mr. SANDS: Well, as is so much of the exact details are unclear, on Friday there were protests in the city and people got shot and killed.

The protesters say that government forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrations there. The government has a very different story and claims that an armed gang infiltrated by foreign elements - which is a phrase that we keep seeing here again and again now from the government - was roaming around in the city and was trying to spread sectarian discord.

And, in fact, what happened on Friday is there was a very influential Sunni cleric in Qatar who spoke about the revolution reaching Syria. And he made some comments that the government said was just effectively an act of trying to incite sectarian violence in the country between the Sunni majority and the Shiite Alawi minority.

And then on Saturday the violence spiraled and 13 people were killed. The government says 12. And the estimates might have actually been higher. And people were being hospitalized with gunshot wounds apparently by being shot by snipers.

And so the government has sent the army in, which is a huge thing, because all cities in Syria are really heavily policed and tightly controlled by secret police units and various intelligence agencies. And so the fact that they felt a need to send in the military is a huge development.

MONTAGNE: President Bashar Assad has promised political reforms. Are you seeing that there in any form?

Mr. SANDS: So far, no. We've seen promises. Although those promises do seem to be firming up. The country seems to be inching towards political reforms.

On Thursday, we had a promise that they would look at changing the emergency law, which is basically a very draconian set of legislation that gives the security forces unlimited powers in the country. That firmed after the huge protests on Friday.

And yesterday, we had the government saying, OK, no. The decision has already been taken to lift the emergency law. But they gave no timeframe for that, which is a huge caveat.

MONTAGNE: And there have been rumors that Assad will address the nation. Is there anything new in that? There have been rumors of that sort before.

Mr. SANDS: Yeah. It's, again, a slightly curious situation. It's been a couple of days now where people, including officials, have been saying that a presidential address will come. But we've still not seen that.

There are suggestions that the president has been reluctant to do this, because in other revolutions in the Middle East in this recent tidal wave of reforms -in Egypt and Tunisia the presidents, before their regimes collapsed, gave three addresses. And so there's suggestions that he doesn't want to have the first address, because then the clock starts counting. And people will be saying, well, this is a sign of weakness.

Again, that's something that Syrians here are suggesting might be the reason why he hadn't done that yet. But I think the vast majority of people actually do still probably support him and then see him as the man to steer them through this, if possible, peacefully.

But they want some clear direction now. They want to hear what the plan is, what the program is, rather than the very mixed signals that have been coming out of the government so far.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking with Philip Sands, a journalist based in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Thanks very much.

Mr. SANDS: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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