Damascus suburb is new centre of defiance to Assad

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian protests which broke out in the southern city of Deraa nearly three weeks ago have taken root in an urban center near Damascus, where thousands gather every night to mourn demonstrators shot dead by security forces.

The Sunni Muslim suburb of Douma has emerged as a new focus of defiance against the 11-year rule of President Bashar al-Assad, shaken by the protests which spread across Syria after first erupting in Deraa.

A key demand of protesters has been an end to a decades-old emergency law, which lawyers and activists say has been used by authorities to stifle opposition, justify arbitrary arrests and give free rein to secret police in the country of 20 million.

Witnesses say thousands of people have been gathering at night in front of the Big Mosque in Douma, a few miles (km) north of Damascus, to pay tribute to 10 protesters shot dead by security forces during a demonstration on Friday.

Authorities have blamed “armed groups” for opening fire and killing an unspecified number of citizens and security forces in Douma on Friday. They also said two policemen were killed in a nearby village on Tuesday while on a “normal patrol.”

Witnesses said security forces were out in strength on Wednesday in Deraa, where many shops were shut in solidarity with the Douma victims. But residents said security forces kept a low profile in Douma, home to hundreds of thousands, giving it an air of freedom they say they have not felt in decades.

“Douma feels like a liberated city. But we have no illusions that this is temporary, and that the secret police have withdrawn to their headquarters only to absorb the rage in the streets,” one of the residents said.

“The Friday massacre is not forgotten. People are afraid of a repeat this Friday,” another resident said.

“FOREIGN CONSPIRACY”

Residents said funerals for two protesters who died of their wounds were held on Tuesday, bringing the total killed in Douma to 10.

Thousands of people had attended the mass funeral for the eight on Sunday, which turned into a protest against the rule of Assad’s Baath Party, in power since a 1963 coup.

Outside Douma, on the streets leading to Damascus, the government has erected billboards carrying the slogan, “Besiege sectarian strife and isolate its symbols. The only road to reform is Bashar al-Assad.”

In a speech last week Assad, from Syria’s Alawite minority, said some protesters had legitimate demands, but that the mass demonstrations were a foreign conspiracy to stir sectarian strife.

Assad has responded to the protests which were inspired by Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, with a blend of force — his security forces have killed dozens of protesters across Syria — and vague promises of reform.

Assad’s father, late President Hafez al-Assad, hinted that survival of the Alawites as a sect was at stake when secular leftists and the Muslim Brotherhood challenged his rule in the 1980s. He crushed the Brotherhood’s armed rebellion in 1982 in Hama, killing thousands.

Alawites, who follow a secretive sect with links to Shi’ite Islam, form 10 percent of the 20 million population of Syria.

“FREEDOM IS A BIRTHRIGHT”

Opposition and independent figures have signed a declaration to respect Syria’s diversity, rejecting arguments by authorities that any challenge to Assad amounts to sowing sectarian strife.

Civic and religious leaders have descended on Douma to offer condolences. The area in front of the mosque has turned into a rallying ground for people calling for freedoms and unity.

“We call for freedom for every person. For every Sunni, Alawite, Ismailis and Christian, whether Arab or a member of the great Kurdish nation,” Sheikh Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the independent Islamic Civilization society, told a large crowd of mourners on Tuesday night.

“Freedom is a birthright. No one can grant it. Not the state, nor the ruler. The great people went out in the streets to take their rights without carrying a gun,” he said.

“They called, and we call with them: peaceful, peaceful peaceful,” echoing the cry adopted by pro-democracy protestors during their successful popular revolution in Egypt.

The crowd erupted in chants: “Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful. Freedom, freedom, freedom. The Syrian people are rebels. The Syrian people are one.”

Douma, a conservative suburb linking Damascus with the northern countryside, has a history of opposing autocratic rule.

Residents they have formed popular committees to guide protests, echoing councils set up during Ottoman rule to oppose what was then viewed as an oppressive central government.

Douma farmers once depended on the Barada river, which fed Damascus but has dried up and is now a smelly stream. The suburb, however, is wealthier than other outlying areas of the capital and residents pride themselves on being highly educated.

They recall that on the eve of the French occupation of Syria in 1920, religious leaders met in Douma and issued a call for people to volunteer and fight the new colonialists. After the French decreed an unpopular constitution for Syria 12 years later, 1,500 people from Douma took to the streets as police fired bullets into the crowd.

Media operate in Syria under severe restrictions. Syria expelled Reuters’ Damascus correspondent last month. Three other foreign Reuters journalists were expelled after being detained for two or three days and a Syrian Reuters photographer was held for six days.

Damascus suburb is new centre of defiance to Assad