May 5 (Bloomberg) -- Syria’s army began a withdrawal from the southern city of Daraa, the scene of the most violent crackdown by military forces since anti-regime protests erupted, and stepped up raids in the capital’s suburbs.
Syrian security forces arrested more than 300 people today in Saqba, a Damascus suburb, said Mahmoud Merhi, the head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Security forces conducted sweeps in the past two days in other suburbs of the capital including Harasta and Douma, he said.
Khalil Maatouk, a Syrian lawyer who volunteers to help those arrested, said he couldn’t provide details on those detained today. About 100 tanks are positioned between the outskirts of Damascus and Homs, a city north of the capital, Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights said.
“It would seem that the general tactic has been twofold: to send a very strong message violently with moving into Daraa to scare people against joining the opposition movement, and now it sort of has evolved into a more practical approach of rounding up any potential people that would be involved in those protests,” Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, said by phone today.
Protests are likely to take place tomorrow throughout the country tomorrow except in Daraa because of the crackdown, Qurabi said.
“This Friday is perhaps more important than in previous weeks as it will be a test of how successful the regime’s repression policy has been in stifling dissent,” Phillips said.
“If you have a situation where you get fewer protesters coming out than in previous weeks, then the message to the regime is that repression works,” Phillips said. “If, on the other hand, you get more people on the streets than previously, then it sends the reverse message that repression, no matter how hard it is, will not work, and this a movement that can’t be broken by force.”
Syrian forces backed by tanks stormed Daraa on April 25 as part of a crackdown aimed at crushing protests inspired by popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year. The demonstrations have posed the most serious challenge to the 11-year rule of President Bashar Al-Assad.
“Army units began to pull out gradually from Daraa after completing their mission by detaining terrorist elements and restoring security and calm,” state television reported today.
More than 600 people have been killed in the unrest that began mid-March and the death toll may be higher as many people are missing, Merhi and Qurabi said in telephone interviews today.
Syrian security forces and the army are “engaged in covering up the chilling crimes they committed in cold blood in Daraa,” Qurabi said.
About 105 army and security personnel have been killed since March 18, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its website today. Hundreds of people have been detained and many of them were referred to courts on charges of “harming the prestige of the state and inciting riots,” it said.
The interior ministry said 361 people who were involved in riots had surrendered to the government authorities and were released after they vowed not to take up any action that is “detrimental to the security of the state and citizens,” the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Assad has appointed a new government, ended emergency rule that had been in place since 1963 and pledged reforms, steps that have failed to halt the spread of demonstrations.
The Syrian central bank yesterday took measures aimed at boosting lending and spurring the economy.
The bank lowered the minimum reserve requirement for banks to 5 percent from 10 percent, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported. It also eliminated some reserve requirements for funds intended for investment in industries such as tourism and small and medium-sized companies.
European Union foreign ministers meeting in Rome today are likely to discuss proposals to expand sanctions against the Syrian government. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague has been pushing the EU to go beyond an arms embargo and impose travel restrictions and asset freezes on top Syrian officials.
About 3,000 people have been arrested since April 30, with one third of those detained coming from Daraa alone, Qurabi said.
The army’s withdrawal from Daraa is “not a complete pullout,” Merhi said. “If they withdrew completely, the situation in Daraa would return to what it was before,” Merhi added.
Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian writer and political activist, said in a telephone interview that there are indications that army snipers are still in Daraa.
“The aim of the mission was to weaken the revolt in Daraa and to some extent that has been achieved given that all the men between the ages of 15 and 40 have been rounded up,” he said. “However, I don’t think it will break the resolve of people in the country.”
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