In Syria, government's doublespeak infuriates protesters


Members of Syrian opposition kiss a former Syrian flag to protest against President Bashar al-Assad after their meetings in the Turkish coastal city of Antalya on June 2, 2011. The meeting aimed to create a plan to remove Bachar Assad from power.


Adem Altan

DAMASCUS, Syria — The Syrian government says it has lifted emergency law, implemented new parliamentary laws and media freedoms, investigated police brutality and granted all political prisoners amnesty. So why are people still protesting?

Because these announcements do not coincide with action.

More than 1,200 civilians have died and at least 10,000 have been arrested since protests began against President Bashar al-Assad’s government in mid-March, according to rights groups. Repression and extrajudicial arrests continue to inrease.

Friday was one of the bloodiest days since the 10-week uprising began, with an internet blackout temporarily preventing footage of Syrian security forces opening fire on a 50,000-strong anti-government protest in Hama from leaving the country. At least 53 people died in Hama and another 10 elsewhere throughout the country that day, said the human rights organization Sawasiah.

An additional 35 people were killed since Saturday in the northern towns Jisr al-Shughour and Khan Sheikhoun, according to human rights groups, making this past weekend one of the bloodiest since the protests began.

Tanks also rolled into Hama Saturday night, where 100,000 people marched in funerals for those killed Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. On Sunday morning, at least three demonstrators were killed in a town in the northwestern province of Idlib.

Despite the ongoing violence, the government continues to insist it is implementing reforms.

On May 31, Assad granted amnesty for “all members of Muslim Brotherhood and other detainees belonging to political movements.” Several hundred political prisoners were released the next day.

The announcement — and the doublespeak and deception it represents — aggravated rather than mitigated the scale of protests after Friday prayers, several sources in Damascus said.

Those demanding an end to the autocratic, 48-year Ba’ath Party rule are cynical about the announcement and similar recent moves. On June 1 and June 2, Syrian opposition figures held a conference in Antalya in Southern Turkey, calling for Assad’s immediate resignation and dismissing the amnesty measure as “too little, too late.”

“I don't think there’s a real intention to conduct any real reforms,” agreed Feeras Ajlouni, an economics graduate from Damascus who opposes the regime. “Some may hit the surface, but [there is] nothing hardcore to change the authoritarian nature of the regime.”

A caveat in the amnesty, for instance, says it only covers Muslim Brotherhood members who turned themselves into police and confess membership — likely a small group.

Washington, too, was frustrated by this nominal gesture and the small number of prisoners released so far.

“The release of some political prisoners is not the release of all political prisoners. We need to see all political prisoners released,” said Mark Toner, the U.S. state department deputy spokesman.

Other announced reforms simply go ignored.

Assad on April 21 said he was lifting the state of emergency that has empowered the country’s secret police force and justified the detention of political prisoners because of Syria’s longstanding state of war with Israel. But the secret police has only become more ubiquitous in recent weeks. Plainclothes men with lists of names stand at check points along the country’s roads — particularly in neighborhoods where there is conflict or where certain minority groups live — looking for accused dissidents and arresting people daily.

Syrian state TV this week said Assad has also launched a “national dialogue” aimed at finding a political solution to the crisis, and has set up a committee to investigate the killing of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb — an incident which inflamed anger throughout the week and made the death of more than 30 children since protests began the focal point of Friday’s protests. Previous government committees tasked with investigating crimes committed by police in Deraa and elsewhere have yet to find any wrongdoing.

“I love those secret governmental probing committees that ‘would’ look into crimes, spearheaded by high-ranking officials,” said a 31-year-old Syrian engineer who left the country to avoid obligatory military service in February.

Assad said he is also reforming Syrian elections, by drafting a law that will allow members of political parties not aligned with the ruling Ba’ath party to run for office. The law, however, it was announced last week, will not rescind Article 8 of the Syrian constitution, which declares the Ba’ath Party to be “leader of the Syrian government and society.”

There are also plans for a new media law that will supposedly give Syrian journalists more freedom. On June 4, state media reported that “Syrian journalists are looking forward to the new media law to provide more freedom … and canceling prison sentence for journalists.”

As yet, Syria remains one of the most restrictive countries in the world for free expression, according to Reporters Without Borders. Privately-owned publications are banned or their employees questioned if an article is published that veers from the government narrative for recent events — that the violence is the work of armed, Muslim fundamentalist gangs seeking to destroy Syria’s national unity.

When presented with the prospect of a freer media environment in the near future, one Syrian journalist summed up the local attitude succinctly, saying, with a derisive chuckle: “Whatever.”

This report was written by GlobalPost's reporter in Damascus whose name has been withheld for security reasons.