BEIRUT

Middle East

Syrians rally against Russian support for Assad’s ‘killing machine’

DAMASCUS/CAIRO: The Arab League Tuesday demanded an end to bloodshed in Syria, as activists there staged anti-Russia protests and a Western-led drive for U.N. sanctions over its deadly crackdown ran into new opposition from Moscow and Beijing.

The U.S. and French ambassadors traveled to the Damascus district of Daraya Tuesday to attend a condolence ceremony for slain Syrian activist Ghiyath Matar, who reportedly died under torture, activists said.

The activists also posted a brief clip on YouTube, showing the U.S. envoy Robert Ford and his French counterpart Eric Chevallier sitting on chairs at a large ceremony.

Matar, a key player in organizing protests against President Bashar Assad’s state, died in detention after being tortured, according to the international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Demonstrators burned Russian flags in the flashpoint protest hubs of Homs in the center and Deraa in the south in protest at Moscow’s support for President Bashar Assad, activists said.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Syria could plunge into “civil war,” as he began in Egypt a tour of Arab countries where uprisings have ousted autocratic leaders.

He expressed frustration with the Syrian presidency, with which he had built up close ties, for failing to “listen to the voice of the people,” later adding the Syrian people and he himself do not believe Assad anymore because he has failed to carry out reforms.

“As civilian deaths increase in Syria we see that reforms have not materialized and they did not speak honestly. It is not possible to believe this. And the Syrian people do not believe in Assad, nor do I. We also do not believe him,” Erdogan said during a speech delivered in Cairo to set out Turkey’s vision of the Middle East.

Erdogan, whose country has urged Assad repeatedly to end a crackdown against protesters, stopped short of directly calling for Assad’s resignation, as have the United States and the European Union.

“Nobody can be a friend with or trust an administration that fires bullets at its people and attacks its cities with tanks,” Erdogan said.

Syrian protesters have been demanding democracy in almost daily demonstrations for six months, with the United Nations saying 2,600 people have been killed in the crackdown by the Syrian authorities.

In Cairo, the Arab League called for “immediate change” in Syria.

“There must be an immediate change that leads to an end to the bloodshed and protection of the Syrian people from more violence and killings,” said a statement read out by Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, the chair of the meeting.

“The Syrian leadership must take urgent steps to implement the measures it agreed upon during the visit of the secretary-general,” it said in reference to bloc chief Nabil al-Araby, who traveled Saturday to Damascus with a peace bid.

“We cannot accept this killing machine. We cannot allow people to be killed this way,” Sheikh Hamad said at a press conference after the meeting.

“The army must withdraw from inside the cities so that we can start talking about a dialogue between the people and the government,” he said.

“Do not support the killers,” activists urged Russia in a message announcing Tuesday’s action posted on The Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook page that has been issuing calls for protests.

“We express our anger toward Russia and the Russian government. The regime will disappear but the people will live,” the activists added.

Moscow has blocked Western-led efforts at the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions against Syria and is promoting a rival draft resolution that simply calls on the government and the opposition to open direct talks.

President Dmitry Medvedev defended the Russian position in talks in Moscow Monday with British Prime Minister David Cameron even as the Syrian security forces pressed their deadly crackdown on dissent.

On Tuesday, police and troops again deployed in force, carrying out search and arrest operations in a string of towns, activists said.

One person was killed during searches in Deir al-Zour province in the northeast while five more were wounded when troops went house to house in Houla in Homs province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP in Cyprus.

Also in Homs, two people were reported dead, one of whom was kidnapped four days ago and whose corpse was handed to the family and a second succumbing to injuries suffered during security operations Saturday, the Observatory said.

In addition, at least 34 people were arrested in the town of Zabadani, 50 kilometers west of Damascus, where the army was deployed at dawn, according to the observatory and Local Coordination Committees (LCC ).

The security forces arrested more than 160 people in Idlib province near the Turkish border, and dozens more in Deraa, in satellite towns around the capital, and in the Mediterranean coastal towns of Latakia and Banias, the Britain-based watchdog said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that, as of Monday, a total of 2,600 people had been killed in the Syrian government’s crackdown on protests.

But senior Assad aide Bouthaina Shaaban said on a visit to Moscow that 1,400 people had died since the demonstrations erupted in mid-March – half of them security force personnel and half of them “rebels.”

Damascus has consistently maintained that the protests are the work of armed groups, rejecting the reports of Western embassies and human rights groups that the great majority of those killed have been unarmed civilians.

On Monday, the French Foreign Ministry said the U.N. Security Council’s inability to approve a tough resolution against Syria was “a scandal.”

But after talks in Beijing Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe expressed disappointment that he had made little headway in persuading his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi to abandon its opposition to a sanctions resolution.

Cameron expressed similar disappointment after his talks with Medvedev in Moscow Monday.

Erdogan warned in comments published Tuesday that he feared Turkey’s southern neighbor could plunge into a sectarian civil war between its Sunni Muslim majority and Assad’s minority Alawite sect, which he said dominated top positions in the Syrian hierarchy and manned its crack militias.

“The people’s anger is directed at them [the Alawite elite], not only because they are a tool of the government, but also because of their confession, and the Syrian regime is playing up this dangerous card,” he said in an interview published by Egypt’s independent Al-Shourouk newspaper.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu “will soon travel to Tehran to pursue consultations on the situation in Syria and after that I will visit Tehran to meet officials,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 14, 2011, on page 1.

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