As anti-government protests spread across Syria, we examine the position of the president.
|Protests have spread across Syria after first erupting in the southern city of Daraa one month ago [AFP]|
Witnesses say about 300 protesters took to the streets in the southern Syrian city of Suweida, but were dispersed and beaten by security forces.
Sunday’s demonstration came a day after Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, said the country’s decades-long emergency laws would be lifted within a week and also promised a number of other reforms.
There were also reports of two protesters being killed in Talbiseh outside Homs, but this could not immediately be confirmed.
Some protesters in Suweida, about 130km south of the capital, Damascus, said they were attacked and badly beaten by government thugs.
Mazen Darwish, an activist in Damascus, said two people had been injured and taken to hospital.
“Protesters were sitting in the square, chanting slogans for political freedom,” he told Al Jazeera. “After a few minutes, people in civilian clothes attacked them.”
There were also reports of demonstrations in Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city, in the coastal city of Baniyas, and in the central city of Homs.
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Rights activist Suhair Atassi said on Twitter that 400-500 people were protesting in Aleppo, chanting slogans for national unity.
In the town of Hirak, outside the southern city of Daraa, thousands of mourners at the funeral of a soldier reportedly chanted slogans calling on the president to step down, Reuters news agency reported.
A relative of the 20-year-old soldier said his family was told he was accidentally electrocuted at his military unit
near Damascus but mourners believed he had been tortured by security forces.
Activists had called for protests across Syria on Sunday, which is Syria’s Independence Day, commemorating the departure of the last French soldiers 65 years ago and Syria’s proclamation of independence.
The Damascus Declaration, an opposition umbrella group, called for peaceful protests in all Syrian cities and abroad to “bolster Syria’s popular uprising and ensure its continuity”.
In a statement posted on its website, the group said the government was responsible for killing and wounding hundreds of Syrians who have been calling for their legitimate rights in the past month.
“The regime alone stands fully responsible for the blood of martyrs and all that will happen next in the country,” the statement said.
Other activists also called for protests through social network sites.
Assad promised on Saturday to end the emergency law, but coupled his concession with a stern warning that further unrest will be considered sabotage.
He warned there will no longer be “an excuse” for organising protests once Syria lifts emergency rule and implements a spate of reforms, which he said will include a new law allowing the formation of political parties.
“After that, we will not tolerate any attempt at sabotage,” Assad said in a televised address to his newly appointed cabinet.
|An activist posted this picture online, saying
it showed a protest in Baniyas on Sunday
George Jabbour, a former member of the Syrian parliament who was an adviser to Assad’s father, former president Hafez al-Assad, said he thought the proposed reforms should be enough to quell anti-government demonstrations.
“It was greeted with, I suppose, satisfaction, by most people, maybe all. I’m glad he [said in his speech] that the lifting of emergency law will strengthen rather than weaken the security of Syria,” he told Al Jazeera.
But Al Jazeera’s Cal Perry, reporting from Damascus, said what is more likely to keep protesters from the streets is gangs of armed pro-Assad protesters.
“The security forces by and large have been replaced by pro-Assad individuals who carry various instruments of destruction – pipes, sticks, at times AK47s,” he said.
“On Friday, when I drove through a section of Damascus, there were a variety of individuals, two dozens perhaps, standing in the streets with pipes, and it was clear they were doing that to send a message – if you’re going to protest, you’re taking the risk to run into these forces and being beaten up.”
Within hours of the president’s speech on Saturday, about 2,000 protesters staged a sit-in in the suburb of Douma, demanding the release of relatives arrested on Friday during a major day of nationwide protests, activists said.
The official SANA news agency also reported around 2,000 people demonstrated in the southern protest hub of Daraa late on Saturday, chanting slogans for “freedom” and the lifting of emergency laws.
The laws – in force since 1963 – restricts public gatherings and movement, authorises the interrogation of any individual and the monitoring of private communications and imposes media censorship.
Assad has said armed gangs and a “foreign conspiracy” were behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers.
Syria’s state-run news agency said on Sunday that security forces seized a large quantity of weapons hidden in a lorry coming from Iraq. SANA reported that the weapons were confiscated at the Tanaf crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border.
It said the shipment included machine-guns, automatic rifles, night vision goggles and grenade launchers.