Syrian army closes in on Damascus suburbs


THE SYRIAN army has reportedly cordoned off the Maadamiya and Darayya suburbs of Damascus and begun house-to-house searches, making a number of arrests that included women.

Electricity and communications to these areas were apparently cut and a curfew imposed. A source based in central Damascus said that quiet prevailed, traffic was light and the atmosphere was as subdued as during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Reinforcements were said to have been deployed in Homs, the country’s third-largest city, where checkpoints sealed off one quarter from another to prevent large numbers of people from gathering. The crackdown continued in the coastal city of Baniyas, which hosts the country’s main oil export facility, and villages surrounding the protest hub of Deraa.

It was there that the arrest of 15 teenagers for scrawling politically provocative slogans on walls sparked the unrest.

Military operations in Baniyas were expected to end “within a few hours”, reported al-Baath, the ruling party’s paper. In an interview with Al-Watan daily, President Bashar al-Assad indicated that the government was continuing its stick-and-carrot approach. “The crisis will pass . . . and the question of administrative, political and press reforms will advance.” This seems to indicate that once peace and security are restored reforms could be enacted. He also called on Syrians to “consolidate national unity because the nation is the mother of all of us and we need to unite in the face of this plot”.

State television has blamed the weekend killing of six soldiers and 10 Syrian labourers returning from Lebanon in a mini-bus on “armed gangs” determined to destabilise the country.

While he has admitted that Syrians have genuine grievances and has announced reforms, the regime argues that radical fundamentalists (Salafis) and outside forces are behind the unrest. Among the external forces accused of involvement are Syrian exiles, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel and anti-Syrian groups in Lebanon.

Exiles, some with partisan agendas, are certainly involved. They have been trying to provide guidance via the internet to small, local organising committees in Syria, many of them meeting in neighbourhood mosques.

Among the more influential exiles is blogger Rami Nakhle (28) who, under the pseudonym Malath Aumran, initially campaigned against killings of girls believed by their menfolk to have besmirched family honour. Once his identity was discovered, he fled to Beirut.

Facebook page Syria Revolution 2011, a popular site, is administered by Fida al-Din Tariif as- Sayed Isa, a Sweden-based member of the Brotherhood. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the unrest, is located in the UK.

While the military has not been able to smother protests completely, opposition activists say the stick approach has had some success. Turnout last Friday was 30 per cent lower than on April 29th and casualties seem to have been about 50 per cent lower, although figures for dead and wounded are unreliable.