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Once unshakable, Syria rocked by protests

March 31st, 2011

Anti-Syrian government protesters shout slogans as they protest after Friday prayers in Damascus, Syria, on March 25. (AP)

The unprecedented wave of protests in Syria have violently continued and spread across the country for a second week.

Syria’s importance to the Middle East is vital. They are supporters of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, all condemned by the United States. They are still openly at war with Israel, although conflict has not been seen between the two in decades, and constantly use anti-Israeli rhetoric, which pleases the citizens of Syria.

The protests, which began March 15 as a peaceful call for reforms and the release of political prisoners in several cities, towns and villages in the Arab nation, have turned into a violent struggle between anti-government demonstrators and pro-government security forces. Government officials put the death toll in the southern city of Daraa at around 60.

However, many human rights groups have estimated a death toll of over 100 following clashes, which included tear gas, snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops and a raid of a mosque, which also served as a shelter and hospital after government personnel blocked entry to the National Hospital in Daraa.

The largest, and most violent, protests have been in Daraa and the western port city of Latakia. Residents of Daraa have vehemently protested for the release of 15 children who were arrested and tortured for spray painting an anti-government slogan on a wall.

Along with the release of political prisoners, cities across Syria have also called on President Bashar al-Assad to end Emergency Law, which has been in place since the Ba’ath Party takeover in 1963.

Emergency Law strips citizens of their constitutional rights, bans protests, and allows the people to be arrested and tortured without warrant and charged with petty crimes such as “weakening country morale.”

The government did announce on Sunday that they would be ending Emergency Law, and replacing it with an “anti-terrorism law.”

Despite this concession, no timetable was given as to when this cancellation of Emergency Law would take place. Along with the end of Emergency Law, the government has met some of the protesters’ demands and released several political prisoners. With the protests continuing, the government made another concession: the resignation of the Syrian cabinet. However, while this may seem like a major development, many pro-reformers are not impressed.

“It means nothing. They have little influence anyways. People forgot we even had a cabinet – it’s all for show,” said a Syrian expatriate living in Cleveland, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

With their demands not met, the protesters have kept to the streets. The western port city of Latakia held solidarity marches in support of the people in Daraa. Much like Daraa, protesters in Latakia were met with an iron fist; snipers on roofs, water canons, knives, live ammunition, tear gas, and large-scale arrests.

“We’ve gone to sleep to the sound of gunfire and sirens the past few days,” said a 20-year-old university student and Latakia resident who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

“There was a major gunfight in my neighborhood a couple days ago, and anyone who leaves the house is being shot at from roofs,” she said.

What distinguishes Latakia from many cities in Syria is the number of religious minorities in the area. There are a large number of Christians and Alawites – a sect of Shia Islam – among the Sunni majority. President Assad and many members of the army and government themselves are Alawites.

“People think that protests in this city are religiously oriented. It has nothing to do with that. My Alawite friends are protesting just as much as my Sunni friends. I knew an Alawite that was shot in the head by a sniper on Saturday,” said Adel, a pharmacy student at Tishreen University in Latakia, who only gave his first name, also out of safety concerns.

“Whether Alawite, Christian, or Sunni, we are all together. We are all Syrians,” he said.

With journalists not granted visas to cover the unfolding events, people outside Syria have taken to YouTube to formulate their opinion of the unfolding events. People inside Syria have formulated their opinions based on the coverage by the government-run Syrian News Agency, SANA.

“Don’t believe what the foreign news stations are saying. It’s wrong. Watch the Syrian channels, they will tell you the truth. The people causing all of this trouble are foreign terrorists. They have a plan to bring down Syria,” said Muhammad, a banker from Damascus, who also only gave his first name out of safety concerns.