Syrian Army Storms Cities on Ramadan Eve, at Least 136 Dead

Syrians Demonstrate in Hama on Friday
Syrians demonstrate against the government after prayers in Hama on Friday. Source: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian soldiers stormed Hama and other flash points of unrest, leaving at least 136 dead, an activist said, as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces sought to reassert control on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, when protests are likely to intensify.

Tanks shelled Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city, where at least 109 people were killed today, said Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Damascus-based Arab Organization for Human Rights.

Three people died near the city of Daraa, and fighting in other areas raised the toll to 136, Merhi said. At least 10 people were killed in Deir Al Zour, said Abdul-Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian Human Rights League. It was one of the deadliest bouts of violence since the uprising against Assad began in March.

The regime is “very worried that as soon as Ramadan begins there will be daily, nightly protests against it, and this is an attempt by hard-liners to give a decisive show of force,” Chris Phillips, a London-based analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a telephone interview. “Given what has happened over the past five months, it is highly unlikely this will work.”

Ramadan Protests

Activists, analysts and refugees have said they expect the uprising to intensify during Ramadan, which begins tomorrow. More than 1,950 protesters have been killed since the demonstrations began, according to Merhi and Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. The unrest poses the biggest challenge to Assad’s rule since he inherited power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he was “appalled” by the Syrian government’s “use of violence and brutality against its own people.” He said the reports out of Hama “demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime,” adding that Assad has “shown he is completely incapable and unwilling to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people.”

Syria will be a “better place when a democratic transition goes forward,” Obama said in a statement issued today by the White House. “In the days ahead, the United States will continue to increase our pressure on the Syrian regime, and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government.”

French, Turkish Condemnations

France condemned the Syrian military repression and said the violence would lead to further instability, according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry.

Turkey said the events on the eve of Ramadan saddened the Islamic world and raised doubts over Assad’s commitment to a peaceful solution to the protesters’ demands.

“The operations will not only make no contribution to securing public order, they also have an extremely negative impact on the process of necessary reform,” the Foreign Ministry in Ankara said in an e-mailed statement. “The events raise questions over the Syrian administration’s goodwill and sincerity in the search for a peaceful resolution.”

Hama, in western Syria, was the site of a 1982 uprising that the current president’s father crushed, leaving about 10,000 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch.

The city has been controlled largely by protesters for about the past month, Merhi said.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “deeply concerned,” by reports of killings today in Syria, his office said in a statement. He condemned the use of force and called on the Syrian government to halt its crackdown.

‘Deeply Concerned’

“The Secretary General reminds the Syrian authorities that they are accountable under international human rights law for all acts of violence perpetrated by them against the civilian population,” the statement said.

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “appalled” by the assault.

“The attack appears to be part of a coordinated effort across a number of towns in Syria to deter the Syrian people from protesting in advance of Ramadan,” Britain’s top diplomat said. Assad “is mistaken if he believes that oppression and military force will end the crisis,” Hague said.

Footage broadcast today by Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera showed columns of black smoke billowing from the city. Gunfire and people screaming could be heard. Syrian state television said an army colonel and two other soldiers were killed by armed men in Deir al-Zour.

Pressure on Economy

The unrest is likely to increase pressure on the country’s economy, Phillips said. Growth is expected to slow to 3 percent this year from 3.2 percent in 2010, the International Monetary Fund said in April. The Institute of International Finance says the economy may contract 3 percent this year.

The tourism industry, which accounts for about 10 percent of gross national product, is slumping, with virtually zero hotel-occupancy rates in Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, Phillips said.

In Syria, as in other mostly Islamic countries, extended family and community groups typically gather to break the daily Ramadan fast after sunset, and people attend mosque more frequently than in other months. Mosques have been rallying points for the Syrian protesters and greater attendance may help organizers get more people on the streets, Phillips said.

‘Arab Spring’ Inspiration

Demonstrators, inspired by the overthrow of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, are calling for democracy and increased civil rights in the country, which has been ruled by the Assad family for four decades. Syria has been a key opponent of U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East and a power-broker in neighboring Lebanon.

Assad has blamed the protests on foreign-inspired plots, while conceding that some demonstrators have legitimate demands and pledging political changes.

The government last week approved laws that allow new political parties to exist alongside Assad’s Baath Party, which has been in power since 1963, and the establishment of a commission to regulate parliamentary elections. Those moves and earlier steps toward change have failed to mollify protesters.

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