The New York Times
Syrian forces killed at least 12 people in the restive city of Homs on Thursday, opposition activists said, a day after the Arab League brokered a plan to halt violence and convene talks between the government and the opposition in two weeks.
Although neither the government nor the disparate Syrian opposition seemed willing to condemn the deal in its infancy, the bloodshed and recriminations apparently augured a difficult path ahead for a government that has relied almost exclusively on violence to crush the uprising and an opposition that has yet to forcefully exert itself.
“We were hoping the violence might stop after the authorities agreed to the initiative, but the scene is still unbearable,” said Mohammed Saleh, a resident of Homs. “The bloodshed hasn’t stopped, and the army and security forces haven’t left the streets.”
A city in central Syria near the Lebanese border, Homs has become one of the most violent locales in the country, with a spate of seemingly sectarian killings this week and, on Thursday, a continuing crackdown by Syrian troops on some of the neighborhoods that have become the most defiant in the eight-month uprising.
Opposition activists said that Syrian forces killed at least 12 people in several neighborhoods in Homs and that gunfire was heard through the morning. Other residents reported a buildup of armed forces in a city home to a contingent of army defectors who have taken up arms.
Other protests were reported in Daraa, the southern town where the uprising began, as well as the restive suburbs of Damascus and the northwestern province of Idlib, where armed clashes have occurred between the Syrian army and defectors. Activists said security forces, at times shooting in the air, forcefully broke up some of the protests.
The precise circumstances of the deaths in Homs were unclear, but residents there said little had changed in the 24 hours since Syria agreed to the Arab League’s plan for the government to remove all tanks and armored vehicles from the streets of restive cities and towns, to halt violence aimed at protesters, and to release political prisoners, estimated to be around 70,000 by the Arab League. Once those steps were taken, the league said it would then initiate a dialogue with the opposition at its headquarters in Cairo, setting that for two weeks hence.
The plan set no timetable beyond that for Syria to withdraw its forces.
Any optimism over the plan was subdued. The United States and Britain say they still believe that President Bashar Assad should heed the demands of protesters and step down, and the European Union called on Syria to “provide the space and security for opposition groups.” Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, the Qatari foreign minister who announced the agreement in Cairo on Wednesday, said the league would await steps being carried out on the ground.
Opposition figures were grim, suggesting that the government accepted the plan as a ploy to buy time as it sought to end the uprising by force.
“Nothing has changed,” said Iyad Shurbaji, a Syrian journalist in Damascus and a critic of the government. “Excessive violence has increased, tanks are still in the streets and not even one barricade has been removed.” He added: “The regime has no intention of carrying out the initiative. It is trying to buy time, betting on time to crush the uprising in attempt to create new facts on the ground, then negotiate from a strong position.”
Mediation has so far failed to blunt either the uprising or the crackdown, one of the most ferocious against any of the revolts that have swept the Arab world this year. The failure of neighboring Turkey was the most spectacular. After six hours of talks in August, including a one-on-one meeting between Turkey’s foreign minister and Assad, Turkish officials thought they had a deal, only to accuse Assad later of lying to them. Since then, Turkey has aggressively courted the exiled Syrian opposition.
Across the region, the Arab League effort, led by the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, was seen as perhaps the last opportunity to stave off more international pressure on Syria, especially at a time when more protesters have urged armed opposition against Assad’s government and fears have grown over an exacerbation of latent sectarian tensions.
Both sides suggested they were calling the other’s bluff.
“The truth will emerge, and it will become clear who really believes in dialogue and who fills the satellite TV screens with their screams calling for further killings, knowing nothing of dialogue,” Mustafa al-Miqdad wrote Thursday in Al Thawra newspaper, a mouthpiece of the Syrian government.
That sentiment was echoed across the divide.
“This regime won’t start real dialogue,” said Warid Haddad, a Syrian opposition figure. “It’s still in a position of strength, dealing with people as if they are property.”
The Free Syrian Army, an armed group that claims to have organized defectors and carried out attacks on the military, said in a statement that it would halt its operations if the government did. Although its real abilities remain unclear, it warned that if the government persisted in the crackdown, “We will be obliged to protect the protesters.”
For months now, both sides have sought to prove their strength in the streets.
In successive weeks, the government has organized mass rallies, in which tens of thousands have turned out in towns like Latakia, Hasaka, Raqa and Deir al-Zour, as well as the capital, Damascus, and Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city. Although encouraged by the state, the protests have underlined the support Assad’s leadership still enjoys, particularly among minorities and the middle class and the elite in Damascus and Aleppo.
Thousands and perhaps more turned out Thursday in Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast, to show, in the words of the official Syrian news agency SANA, “that Syria will remain strong and steadfast in the face of conspiracy through the unity of its people.”
Yet again, Friday may emerge as the clearest insight into the potential of the Arab League’s mediation. The Local Coordination Committees, a group that helps organize and document demonstrations, called for mass protests to test the government’s sincerity. Friday has traditionally served as the opposition’s time to demonstrate its strength in the streets, and the death toll has often risen into the dozens.
“May tomorrow, Friday, be the day where all streets and squares become platforms for demonstrations,” the group said in a statement.
The New York Times