Middle East

Syrians Flee As Government Acts Against Protesters

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Renee Montagne talks with James Hider, the Middle East bureau chief for the Times of London, who is in Amman, Jordan. He's been spending time on the Syrian border talking to the stream of Syrian refugees.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The president of Syria is expected to address his nation today, the first time since anti-government protests broke out in that Middle Eastern country. President Bashar Assad and his father before him have ruled Syria for four decades. In response to protests that began two weeks ago, government forces opened fire, killing dozens of protestors. But with demonstrations continuing, Assad yesterday accepted the resignation of his cabinet.

James Hider is Middle East bureau chief for the Times of London. He's been on the Syrian border speaking with people leaving the country.

Good morning.

Mr. JAMES HIDER (The Times of London): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Tell us who the people you are seeing, who are coming across the border now - how are they describing the situation in Syria?

Mr. HIDER: Well, the people I'm speaking to are people from Dara'a, which is the epicenter of the revolt. One man I spoke to yesterday said that the situation in Dora is just terrifying. He says there's thousands and thousands of security troops, intelligence officers, plainclothes policemen, and they've surrounded the town. They've sealed off Doha from the rest of the country. But despite that, there have been demonstrations over the past couple of days. There was nothing yesterday because there was just so many security people there. But the day before that, even when there was something like 20,000 soldiers around the town, people went out and started protesting, and we have seen examples of incredible defiance to this regime.

Apparently on Friday prayers, the imams of the mosques were told to read out a prepared statement condemning the protesters as armed gangs and foreign provocateurs. And the people in the mosques started chanting, they started praying to the point where the imams had to abandon their sermons, which they said were full of propaganda. And some of the imams themselves refused to read out these prepared speeches. So we are seeing quite amazing defiance in this small town.

MONTAGNE: And when President Assad, who's under a lot of pressure now, does speak today, he is to announce a package of reforms - that's the understanding. What kind of concessions is he expected to make?

Mr. HIDER: Well, the key concession he's supposed to make is lifting the emergency law that has been in place for almost 50 years, and that was brought in when the Baath Party took over power in 1963. And that has allowed the security forces to arrest people, to hold people without charge; people have vanished for years under this law. And that is what the demonstrators are calling for to be lifted, is their foremost demand.

They're also hoping that they will be allowed more freedom of assembly and that opposition parties, which are banned at the moment, might be permitted to form. So those are the main things they're looking for. But the demonstrators themselves are split as to what they want. Some would be happy with reforms, but some in the city of Doha, where the protests started, say that it's actually too late for that.

MONTAGNE: Is there any hope that the situation in Syria will improve if President Assad does make some real moves towards reform?

Mr. HIDER: The people here are hoping that it will improve. The problem is that President Assad has promised reform for 11 years and nothing has really been forthcoming, and a lot of people have lost hope that these reforms will come through from the government itself. So some people are actually calling for the government to be removed. Not just the cabinet, which resigned yesterday, but the whole regime, the Assad family.

And so he's in quite a difficult position now. If he does start lifting these laws, if he does allow people more freedom, that might satisfy some people, but other people are already saying that you need the entire regime change. And so if they do start lifting the lid on this very politically repressed society, that could lead to more demonstrations, that could snowball into something that we've seen in Tunisia, in Egypt and Libya. And so he's treading a very delicate line here.

MONTAGNE: James Hider is the Middle East bureau chief of the Times of London. We reached him in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

Thanks very much.

Mr. HIDER: Okay, Sure.

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