30 Mar 2011

Syria protests: no concessions from President Assad

A senior Syrian opposition figure tells Channel 4 News the people protesting on the streets of Syria have “reached the point of no return” as President Assad refuses to bow to their demands.

President Bashar al-Assad said he supports reform but he defied expectations by not lifting the decades-old emergency law in his first public response to a wave of protests sweeping his country.

A key demand of the pro-democracy protests in Syria, which erupted two weeks ago, was the lifting of the emergency law.

Despite brutal repression of the protests, in which more than 60 people have died, President Assad was widely expected to make the concession in his speech on Wednesday in an attempt to prevent further unrest. The unprecedented protests have presented him with the biggest challenge to his 11-year rule so far.

But in the speech – his first since protests began – he did not mention lifting the state of emergency law and also offered no new commitment to changing Syria’s rigid, one-party political system.

“Staying without reforms is destructive to the country,” conceded Assad.

‘Protests will not stop’

But one of the leading opposition figures to the Assad Government told Channel 4 News the people would not stop protesting now as they are “not frightened any more”.

Even though there is excessive use of force, the street will not stop…he’s going from bad to worse, and he’s taking the fight to his people. Syrian opposition figure, Mamoun Homsy

Mamoun al-Homsi is a former Syrian MP who was imprisoned for five years in 2001 for his support for democracy. He now lives in exile.

He told Channel 4 News: “People are determined. They have reached the point of no return. The machinery of oppression in Syria is massive – it’s a specialist regime in terms of the tools of repression – so it’s a massive step for the people to go in their thousands onto the street. They are not frightened any more.”

He said the Syrian people now needed the support of the international community to prevent a massacre.

“I think the solution is the responsibility of the international community – do they face him, like the dictators in Tunisia and Libya, or not?

“The street will not stop. It has rights. Even though there is excessive use of force, the street will not stop…he’s going from bad to worse, and he’s taking the fight to his people. And the international community – he’s challenging them. He’s not answering one of the demands of the people in the streets. Not one.

“Now we are talking crimes against humanity – kidnapping, killing. This is a genocide.”

Read more on Syria: the battle between reform and repression


President Assad said opponents were trying to spread sectarian strife with the protests, saying people had tried to “spark chaos” but they would be thwarted by the majority. He also said that security forces had been told not to harm anyone during the protests.

“Syria today is being subjected to a big conspiracy,” he told parliamentarians, who frequently interrupted his speech with applause and shouts of support.

More than 60 people have been killed in the protests which began in the southern city of Deraa after a number of teenagers were arrested for writing anti-Government graffiti. At first the demonstrators demanded greater freedoms in the country, but after the security crackdowns saw live ammunition used against protesters, their demands hardened into the “downfall of the regime.”

The emergency laws were introduced in 1963 when the Baath Party took power in a coup. They have been used to stifle political debate, control the media and justify the arbitrary arrest of opponents.

On Tuesday, the President announced he was sacking his entire Government – though it had little authority in Syria where power is concentrated in Assad’s family and his security apparatus. Tens of thousands of Syrians gathered in the capital Damascus for a demonstration in support of the President, however members of unions said they had been ordered to attend the rallies.

The US State Department said it believed President Assad was at a crossroads.

“He has claimed to be a reformer for over a decade but has made no substantive progress on political reform. We urge him to address the needs and aspirations of the Syrian people,” it said.