In Syria, Opposition Stages Massive Protests

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July 15, 2011

There were massive opposition protests in towns and cities across Syria Friday, despite an ongoing government crackdown that left at least 19 protesters dead. Hundreds of thousands marched in cities like Deraa, Hama and Homs — all three have been major hubs of the protest movement. But there were also protests and violence in Damascus Friday. The Syrian capital has been comparatively quiet until now.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Syria today, security forces opened fire on protesters once again. At least 27 were killed, according to opposition activists. The massive protests came just days after the government concluded a national dialogue aimed at charting a course for political and economic reform. That conference was held in Damascus. But today, the Syrian capital and its suburbs were the scene of some of the worst violence.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been monitoring developments in Syria from neighboring Lebanon.

DEBORAH AMOS: Syria's protest movement seemed to gain momentum today as hundreds of thousands of people marched and chanted for the downfall of the regime. For the first time, the mass rallies were broadcast live on an Arabic satellite channel. Grainy cell phones videos replaced by real-time images from the hotspots around the county.

It's a technical achievement for the protesters, says Wissam Tarif, who heads a Syrian human rights group.

Mr. WISSAM TARIF (Founder, Insan): It is a big deal. It shows that the protestors are getting more organized.

AMOS: How many Syrians would have watched live coverage?

Mr. TARIF: It's Friday, so every Syrian living inside the country or outside the country was watching that.

AMOS: Gauging viewership is difficult, but the protests appeared to be the largest yet, says Salmon Shaikh, the head of the Brookings Institution in the Middle East. He spoke from Washington.

Mr. SALMON SHAIKH (Brookings Doha Center): Numbers in specific towns and localities throughout Syria is increasing markedly, and I think that's what we saw today.

AMOS: As the Syrian uprising enters its fifth month, protests are now organized throughout the week, in some provincial towns nearly every day. On Wednesday, in the capital, a rally was organized by Syrian celebrities, including a soap opera star and well-known stage actors. Thirty were arrested. A tactic, says Shaikh, that only brings attention to the high-profile dissent.

Mr. SHAIKH: The crackdown on the protest on Wednesday against intellectuals and artists and others I believe was another own goal from the regime. Add to that, the attacks on the French and American embassies. There is a stupidity here in the action of the regime, which only fuels then further mistrust both inside Syria and outside.

AMOS: The Syrian government charges that mistrust goes both ways. Bouthaina Shaaban, a presidential advisor, says the international pressure has been too harsh. There have been arrests for those who damaged the U.S. and French embassies on Monday. And, she says, Syria has gotten no support for a government plan to move ahead on democratic reforms laid out in a national dialogue this week.

Dr. BOUTHAINA SHAABAN (Presidential Adviser, Syria): We didn't hear one word from Western democracies to support dialogue, to support what we are doing, to say that is a good step. Go ahead, go ahead peacefully.

AMOS: But the audience for the government's outreach is on the streets and most of the young organizers still reject any talks.

Amer al Sadeq, an activist in Damascus points out that this was an unusually bloody day in the Damascus suburbs, where at least a dozen protesters died.

Mr. AMER AL SADEQ: There is no trust. And even if you trust that the regime is going to talk, you are not going to believe that they're willing to talk with all the tanks, with all the killings happening in the street.

AMOSL A sign, says Sadeq, that the government is now determined to crush any dissent in the capital, a place that has so far has been outwardly calm.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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