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Syria: Peaceful Protests Thwarted By Police Violence

Charlotte Spangler |
February 24, 2011 | 10:06 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

In an effort to squash nationwide protests in their infancy, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad clamped down hard on peaceful protests earlier this week, enlisting street-clothed police to beat and arrest demonstrators.

Fourteen people were arrested and several beaten by undercover Syrian officers on Tuesday, following a sit-in of roughly 200 people outside the Libyan embassy in Damascus.

According to the Guardian, witnesses said at least two women were among those beaten.

Demonstrators chanted slogans such as "traitors are those that beat their people," while hoisting signs boasting the phrases "freedom for the people" and "down with Gaddafi."

The protest fervor was sparked by Facebook and Twitter campaigns advertised as the “Day of Rage.” Slated for Feb. 4 and 5, the movement failed to cultivate much support.

On Feb 28, however, 1,500 angry Syrians spontaneously took to the streets of Damascus for three hours after witnessing a police beating. The video can be viewed below.

They chanted “the Syrian people will not be humiliated”, interspersed with, “shame, shame” and “with our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you Bashar.” 

"Despite all troubles here, I don't think and don't hope that Syria will be the next [country to see an uprising] for too many reasons. My country is still not ready for such an experiment and the president here is not really hated,” a young Syrian told Al Jazeera.

Government: The current government has been in power for the last 40 years, starting when Hafiz Al-Asad headed a bloodless coup in 1970 against civilian party leadership and assumed the role of prime minister. He quickly created a legislature and was elected to a seven-year presidential term in 1971.

Hafiz Al-Asad’s government crushed an attempted uprising in 1982, which resulted in many deaths.

Since then, protests have been very limited. Hafiz Al-Asad died in 2000, and the parliament swiftly amended the constitution to lower the minimum age of the president from 40 to 34, which allowed Al-Asad’s son, Bashar al-Assad, to run unopposed and continue his father’s regime.  He won an unopposed race again in 2007.

Bashar al-Assad has continued the dictatorship of his father, restricting access to Facebook and Amazon for three years - the ban was lifted Feb. 9, 2011, many say because the government wanted to appear more free than Egypt and others - and arresting and incarcerating teenage bloggers for “revealing information to a foreign country.”

During his ten-year reign, there has been little change to the political system, and instead more focus has been placed on limited economic liberalizations. Government critics in Syria complain of corruption and limitations to political freedom and human rights.

The Human Rights Watch in its 2010 World Report stated that Syrian authorities “continued to broadly violate the civil and political rights of citizens, arresting political and human rights activists, censoring websites, detaining bloggers, and imposing travel bans.”

US-Relations: The US recently assigned an ambassador to Syria, after withdrawing the previous ambassador in 2005 after the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  

Here is Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's explanation for reinstating an ambassador:

"We know [Assad is] hearing from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. It is crucial that he also hear directly from us, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That's why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria. There should be no mistake, either in Damascus or anywhere else: The United States is not reengaging with Syria as a reward or a concession. Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight, and a greater ability to convey strong and clear messages aimed at changing Syria's behavior."

The State Dept. has also recently released a statement against the Syrian government’s actions, and calling on the Syrian government to “immediately release all its prisoners of conscience; and allow its citizens freedom to exercise their universal rights of expression and association without fear of retribution from their own government.”

President Barack Obama admitted that "Syria still poses an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”

In 2008 the US gave Syria $14 million for humanitarian assistance, and in 2009, they gave them $2.5 million for “democracy, human rights and governance,” according to Foreign Assistance.

Background: The Syrian Arab Republic is a nation of 22 million people on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.  Approximately the size of North Dakota, Syria exports crude oil, fruits and vegetables, cotton fiber, meat and live animals and wheat to countries such as Italy, France and Saudi Arabia.

Ninety percent of the population is Muslim, and the remaining ten percent is Christian.

A 2006 estimate claims 11.9 percent of the country lives under the poverty line, and in 2010, 8.3 percent of the population was unemployed. 


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