Syrian troops begin to withdraw from Deraa


THE SYRIAN army yesterday began pulling out of the restive city of Deraa as troops and tanks on carrier lorries were observed moving into the coastal town of Baniyas ahead of today’s Muslim prayers. The army also reinforced its presence in other cities and towns where demonstrations have erupted since mid-March.

Arrests were made in early-morning raids in dissident working-class suburbs of Damascus from where on previous Fridays protesters attempted to walk into the capital. Today is expected to be another test of the resolve of the government to impose quiet on opponents deter- mined to take over the streets and demand change.

A television report said that the army had achieved “most of its goals” during the 11-day operation in Deraa, the epicentre of the pro- tests, when the city of 75,000 was locked down without electricity and communications.

An unidentified military officer announced “armed terrorists” who had wreaked havoc in Deraa and the region near the Jordanian border had been pursued, scores of people had been arrested, and “huge amounts of up-to-date ammunition” had been seized. Fifty people have been reported killed in Deraa since the armed forces occupied the city.

Gen Riad Haddad, director of the military’s political department, said the withdrawal would be phased and life would “return to normal”. Presidential political adviser Bouthaina Shaaban has, reportedly, been charged with contacting protest leaders with the aim of initiating dialogue. But interlocutors have not come forward, perhaps because most co-ordinators of the demonstrations are outside the country and veteran opposition figures in Syria do not represent the protesters.

Rami Nakhle, an opposition activist based in Beirut, said: “There is no one in Syria who can speak . . . and this is better for us . . . We say no to negotiations, at least until the secret police are gone from Syria. And when the secret police goes, the regime will go as well.” Two Hungarian journalists who visited Syria as tourists and filed their findings on YouTube said the middle class in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two largest cities, has failed to join the protests.

University students have also largely stayed away. By contrast, tens of thousands from these groups took part in the Egyptian uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak.

Analysts argue that the army is the determining factor and it has remained loyal to the regime.

Wissam Tarif, director of the Insan human rights organisation, said 2,843 people had been confirmed detained, more than 800 from Deraa.

He added, however, that the number could be as high as 8,000.

Speaking in Rome on the sidelines of a conference discussing the situation in Libya, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said there would be “consequences for this brutal crack-down” and Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini said Syria could face suspension of association talks with the EU and imposition of travel restrictions on senior figures.

It is unlikely that the Syrian government will feel threatened by either of these measures as officials have said arrangements with the EU need to be renegotiated completely and few members of the regime can be expected to travel to Europe for some time.