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Syrians can bring down Assad regime

SYRIAN security forces shot dead over 80 protesters on 22 April. They killed another 12 the next day, as the democracy movement attempted to bury its dead. President Bashar al-Assad has opened a river of blood between his regime and the people.

The Arab revolution, though slow to spread to Syria, has now proved democracy campaigners are as willing as their cousins in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Bahrain to sacrifice their lives for the overthrow of dictatorship.

The movement began with small protests in support of the Egyptian and Libyan people and against the police brutality with which these were treated. But the regime’s arrest of children for daubing anti-regime graffiti in the poor southern province of Daraa and its lethal response to local demands for their release ensured the spread of the movement across Syria.
Hoping to exploit people’s fears of communal conflict between Syria’s different religions and sects, presenting itself as the only defender of national unity, the Ba’ath Party regime has tried to paint the protests as sectarian.

Indeed, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi has linked “regime change” to Sunni sectarian hostility to the Shi’a Alawi minority, of which Assad is a member. So far, however, this has had little effect in splitting the protests.

The pro-democracy movement embraces all Syria’s communities, including the Alawi minority. Whatever resentments may exist against Alawis on account of the regime’s corruption and favouritism, the protesters understand that sectarian slogans – in a country where one-third of the population belongs to an ethnic or religious minority – would hand victory to the regime on a plate.

In Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, the government even made claims of an “armed Salafist [Islamist] insurrection” when protesters occupied the central Clock Square. However, the protesters asked certain tribal sheikhs to leave the sit-in, when it became clear that they did not support their demands. Later, they chanted: “We are not Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis – our only demand is freedom.”

The revolution has won victories: forcing the government to grant citizenship to 200,000 Kurds in the north-east and to rescind the 1963 emergency law, which banned demonstrations and severely limited freedom of speech.

While promising reforms, however, the Ba’ath regime continues to kill unarmed protesters, while fabricating stories about “armed gangs” terrorising neighbourhoods.

In reality, everyone knows that the only “armed gangs” in Syria belong to the regime – in the form of shadowy militias and security forces. Rumours have even circulated that soldiers in Homs have cooperated with civilians in looking for gunmen, resembling the way in which the Egyptian army’s lower ranks began to fraternise with protesters in Tahrir Square.

While the army may not have split yet, this is a sign of growing mass sympathy for the movement – which can only continue to infect the state’s repressive institutions, as the people become more united and insistent in their demands.

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