Syrian forces clamp down on key Damascus district


SYRIAN SECURITY forces yesterday clamped down on a key Damascus district to prevent protesters from holding a “day of defiance” in response to the shooting dead of a man attending a funeral.

The man was killed at the funeral of two people who died during an anti-regime rally on Friday. Firm action was ordered in Mezze, a sensitive middle-class district where diplomatic residences and ministries are located, to prevent the revolt from taking root in the capital, which has largely been spared unrest over the past 11 months.

The military also continued its operations against rebel-held districts of the central city of Homs.

Egypt, under strong pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood, withdrew its ambassador, Shawki Ismail, from Damascus, joining the bid to isolate Syria launched by the Saudi-led six-member Gulf Co-operation Council along with Libya and Tunisia.

Gunmen in the northern Idlib province, where rebels hold sway in certain areas, shot dead senior prosecutor Nidal Ghazal and judge Muhammad Ziadeh. Aleppo municipal councillor Jamal al-Bish was assassinated.

On Saturday, Chinese deputy foreign minister Zhai Jun met Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Mr Zhai extended Beijing’s backing for the constitutional referendum set for February 26th and the subsequent parliamentary elections.

Mr Zhai said Beijing was “deeply concerned by the escalating crisis”, pledging China’s support for Arab League efforts to end violence while reiterating Beijing’s rejection of UN involvement.

Following a meeting between Mr Zhai and domestic opposition figures Louay Hussein, Qadri Jamil, and Hassan Abdulzaim, Mr Hussein said: “Most of the opposition accepts a dialogue if that dialogue is serious and responsible, meaning that the Syrian authorities would implement what is agreed. But the problem with dialogue is that the authorities have lost credibility.”

Mr Zhai had met exiled opposition figures before visiting Syria.

China’s official news agency, Xinhua, commented: “China believes, as many others do, there is still hope the Syrian crisis can be resolved through peaceful dialogue between the opposition and the government, contrary to some western countries [that] argue time is running out for talks.”

Xinhua spoke of differences among Syrian opposition groups about how to proceed, with some backing talks and others insisting on western intervention.

“However, . . . calls for peaceful inter-Syrian dialogue have been largely ignored, intentionally or unintentionally, in western media reports, which convey the wrong impression that there is an overwhelming consensus among different factions of the opposition forces that they want foreign intervention.”

Meanwhile, competing external involvement in the Syrian crisis is increasing. As US surveillance drones flew missions over the country, an Iranian destroyer and supply ship docked at the port of Tartous, where the vessels will provide training to the Syrian navy.

US intelligence chief James Clapper said fatal bombings in Damascus in December and January and in Aleppo this month had the hallmark of al-Qaeda.

With its involvement in mind, Iraq and Lebanon have tightened security on their borders with Syria to halt the flow of arms and anti-regime fighters.

In exchange for 47 Turkish intelligence officers captured in Syria last year, Damascus has demanded that Ankara turn over Syrian army defectors based in Turkey, halt weapons smuggling into Syria, and prevent rebels from passing though Turkish territory to mount attacks on Syrian army units.

Since the capture of the officers, Ankara has distanced itself from the campaign against the Assad regime and has expressed opposition to the establishment of buffer zones along its border with Syria where rebels could arm and train.