Syria Hopes Arrests Will Still Stop Protesters

The Syrian government has been trying to keep protesters off the streets by making arrests — hundreds of them. But people are demonstrating anyway. The latest group of protesters waved bread to show solidarity with the besieged city Daraa, where residents have been cut off from food and water and other basic needs.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's talk next about Syria, where the government has been trying to keep protestors off the streets by making hundreds of arrests. People are demonstrating anyway. The latest group of protestors waved bread to show solidarity with the besieged city of Daraa, where residents have been cut off from food and water. NPR News's Kelly McEvers is monitoring this situation from Beirut, Lebanon.

Hi, Kelly.

KELLY MCEVERS: Hello.

INSKEEP: So we're talking here about a crackdown. What are you hearing?

MCEVERS: What we're hearing is that there have been mass detentions in recent days. A Syrian human rights group says that it has the names of thousands of people who've been detained since the protests began. And activists say these arrests have increased sharply this week, especially in Daraa.

Residents there report that anyone between, you know, 18 and 40 as just being arbitrarily rounded up and taken away. Most worrying is what happens to people after they're detained.

Amnesty International says it's got first-hand reports of protestors who have been tortured and beaten in custody. One woman who was trying to organize a relief convoy for Daraa reportedly was thrown into a car at gunpoint when she tried to resist arrest. And she hasn't been heard from since.

INSKEEP: There may be lots of reasons that they Syrians would increase the pace of arrests this week, but might part of it be simply that they can presume that the world's attention is turned elsewhere. We've been paying attention to the death of Osama bin Laden.

MCEVERS: Right. And in some ways the number of killings has actually slowed down a bit. Right now we're at about 600 people who've been killed since the protests began last month.

Security forces have surrounded yet another anti regime city. This time it's the coastal city of Banias. Residents there fear that they will lose access to basic goods and services, like in Daraa.

But I talked to an analyst here yesterday who said in addition to knowing that the world was thinking about something else, that Assad might be calibrating the number of deaths. You know, telling his security forces to use some restraint but not too much, you know, to keep the numbers of dead low enough so as not to bring further condemnation from the international community, but, you know, high enough to maintain a level of fear that will keep a majority of people off the streets.

INSKEEP: Of course when you say Assad you're referring to Bashar Assad, the head of the country, the son of the ruler who was in charge for many decades before that.

Isn't there also a journalist who has gone missing in recent days?

MCEVERS: Yes. Her name is Dorothy Parvaz. She works for Al-Jazeera English. She actually holds a Canadian, American and Iranian passports. Not sure, you know, how she entered the country. It's definitely difficult for Americans or Canadian journalists to enter Syria at this time, if not totally impossible actually.

She went there to report on Friday and apparently was detained at the airport. She has not had any communication with her editor since then. The committee to protect journalists says there's pretty strong evidence that she has been arrested.

INSKEEP: So we've had this week where crackdowns have intensified but protests have continued. Do you have any sense, Kelly McEvers, of which side is gaining ground?

MCEVERS: You know, most analysts and diplomats are saying that this sort of low level unrest is going to continue for some time, that Assad is going to hang for a while, that there's no sign of him right now of stepping down or stepping aside.

In fact, an analyst I spoke to yesterday said that, you know, for him to do that it would basically have to be some kind of coup that would take him out of power.

So he seems to be betting on the fact that these crackdowns, these arrests are doing the job. You know, he has announced a package of reforms in the coming weeks, but the protestors claim that, you know, there's pretty much no reform package at this point that would satisfy them. I mean, that they only want his ouster, that he shed too much blood. So the stalemate is going to continue and we'll just have to see.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelly McEvers monitoring the situation in Syria from Beirut.

Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: Sure.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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