Middle East

Syria Steps Up Crackdown On Protesters

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The Syrian army, backed by tanks and artillery, has stormed the southern town of Deraa, where protests against the government of Bashar al-Assad began about five weeks ago. Soldiers have also sealed off the nearby border with Jordan, and there are reports of more violence against protesters in several areas, including the suburbs of Damascus. For more, host Michele Norris speaks to NPR's Deborah Amos.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In Syria today, the government intensified its crackdown on protesters. Troops and tanks were deployed to the town of Daraa, which is has been the center of demonstrations. There were also sweeping arrests in a suburb of the capital, Damascus. And security police reportedly fired on civilians in the town of Jableh.

Syria has barred the international media from reporting inside the country, and so the reports of the siege of Daraa and other stories come from eyewitnesses and from activists who were keeping in touch with people in Syria.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been monitoring events in Syria from neighboring Lebanon. She joins us on the line now from Beirut. Deb, can you tell us more about the crackdown in Daraa?

DEBORAH AMOS: The Syrian president had two choices after the large demonstrations on Friday, reform or reprisals. And it was clear today that overwhelming force was his choice.

The early videos out of Daraa today showed tanks rolling into town. You can hear the artillery fire. Eyewitnesses, who were able to call into Arabic language satellite channels, before communication was cut off there, described snipers on the rooftops and bodies in the street.

The capital, Damascus, is a tense place. One Damascus resident said anyone who went to noon prayers today had to wait for hours to leave the mosque. Security police were watching for any signs of demonstrations. And when the doors were finally opened they had to file out one-by-one.

NORRIS: And as they watched for these signs of demonstrations, it appears that the Syrian government is trying to crush this movement to stop more protests next week.

AMOS: Well, this anti-government movement, though, has shown a remarkable resilience. These people are facing what they know is live fire - people die in these protests.

At the same time, cracks are beginning to show within the regime. For example, in Daraa, seven government officials quit in protest. Then today, a group of more than a hundred prominent Syrians wrote a public letter condemning the violence.

I spoke to Mohammed Ali Atassi. He's a Syrian journalist and a filmmaker. He signed the letter. Here's what he said.

Mr. MOHAMMED ALI ATASSI (Journalist/Filmmaker): We reached the turning point today. And the only way to reach our target is to continue to demonstrate in a pacifist way in the street. And we are showing the rest of the world that we want our liberty and we are ready to fight to get it.

NORRIS: So that's one person who signed the letter. Deborah, who else signed this letter?

AMOS: Journalists, intellectuals - some are in exile, some are in Syria. They represent every major community in the country: Christians, Druze, Kurds, Muslims, Sunnis and Alawites. Bashar al-Assad and his family are members of the minority Alawite sect.

The government has been portraying this uprising as a Sunni fundamentalist rebellion against the minorities, Alawites and the Christians, a sectarian narrative. These 100 Syrians represent every major sect in Syria.

And Ali Atassi says that the signers wanted to show that there's a national identity among Syrians, not just a sectarian one. And here's what he said about that.

Mr. ATASSI: What is amazing that sometimes it can surprise people from outside, you know, because they still look to us as a completely divided society. And today, the people go to the street and died, and thinking at the same time saying: One, one, one, the Syrian people it's unified in one.

NORRIS: As people continue to go to the street, international criticism is growing in Europe, at the United Nations, here in Washington, D.C. The Obama administration is considering more sanctions aimed at the Syrian leadership. Do any of these tactics work in Syria?

AMOS: No, not American sanctions in particular. The Syrians have weathered those. But the Syrian leadership is sensitive to European sanctions. The president's family travels to Europe. The first lady has been (unintelligible) in Paris as a media star. But there's going to be a long-term price to be paid for this kind of brutality. It's putting your last card on the table right upfront, and it's a gamble that you lose if the protest start again.

If instability continues, the economy will suffer. Tourism is a big money earner for Syria; that will suffer. There's a wealthy business community that is hunkering down to see what will happen. Will they stick with him or will they move their money out? And it has happened before. The uprising has changed the country. The crackdown has changed the stakes.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Deborah Amos reporting about Syria. She's been reporting from Lebanon. Deborah, thank you very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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