Middle East

Syrian Activists: Hama Faces Another Attack

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President Obama said he was "appalled" by violence in Syria over the weekend — some of the worst yet in the months-long uprising against the government of President Bashar Assad. At least 70 people were reported killed in Sunday's government assaults on the cities of Hama and Deir al-Zor. NPR's Peter Kenyon talks to Michele Norris.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: In Syria, anti-government activists are calling for large protests on this, the first day of the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan. But after a violent military crackdown yesterday left scores dead, it's not clear how many opponents of the regime will be willing or able to take to the streets.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is following developments from Beirut. And, Peter, many of the victims of yesterday's offensive were in Hama, a city in the center of the country that's been a focal point of the uprising. What is the latest from that city?

PETER KENYON: Well, I've just been able two speak with two activists. And they report that the military shelling returned after Iftar, that's the sunset meal at which Muslims break their daytime fast, this being the first day of Ramadan. It had been quieter during the morning and afternoon.

But then the shelling continued with some intensity, and then gave way to mainly automatic weapons fire. One mosque has been shelled. Another main mosque in Hama is reportedly been occupied by the military. The activist I spoke with said, despite the shooting, there are protests this evening in at least two neighborhoods of Hama so that would suggest that, at least in this symbolic city of Hama, the Ramadan protest idea is catching on.

NORRIS: So how did today's military operation compare to yesterday's? Is the military offensive still escalating even on this holy day?

KENYON: In pure terms, it probably - you can't call it more intense than yesterday. That was the most intense since this uprising began four months ago, and certainly the most coordinated happening in several cities at once - in Hama, in Deir al-Zour to the east and to Dara'a in the south, and in suburbs of Damascus, the capital. But it has been continuing.

The government insists that its forces are simply clearing away roadblocks and battling armed gangs, although that assertion is coming in for increased scorn among Western diplomats. The main focus still seems to be Hama, the symbolic city where there was a massacre in 1982, which was an armed uprising in that case. But the activists we're speaking with say, yes, the crackdown is continuing.

NORRIS: The international community has strongly condemned the violence. And today, the European Union expanded its sanctions against the Syrian leadership. Are the Syrians you're talking to taking any heart from that?

KENYON: There are some satisfaction in hearing world leaders condemn the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The rhetoric has grown a lot sharper. The press attache at the U.S. embassy in Damascus called the government delusional yesterday. President Obama speaking of new pressure, and as you mentioned, the E.U. has added new Syrian officials to their list of travel bans and asset freezes.

But the diplomatic fundamentals haven't really changed, and Syrians seem to know that. Russia, China and others are still opposed to new U.N. sanctions. Washington and NATO seem to be in no mood for international intervention a la Libya. And serious questions remain about the nature of this opposition, So, the path forward remains cloudy.

NORRIS: Ramadan will last for the next month. Are we likely to be watching for these kinds of evening protests every night throughout Ramadan?

KENYON: Well, I think in the short term, in the beginning of Ramadan, yes, I believe so. I mean, both sides have vital interest at stake here. Bashar al-Assad seems to have no desire to repeat that 1982 massacre in Hama. He has also shown, though, that he's either unwilling or perhaps unable to follow through on his promises of political reform.

Now, the opposition is loath to nominate any leaders on its side. They seem to think that a determined escalation of protests and demonstrations will cause cracks to form in the regime. So at the moment, there's really no obvious third way, no way to get past this cycle of protest and crackdown.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. He was speaking to us about Syria, but he was talking to us from Beirut. Peter, thank you very much.

KENYON: You're welcome.

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