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Syrians losing faith in leader as more protesters killed

Syrians protest in the city of Banias on April 19, 2011.

AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Call it the Syrian two-step: one step forward, one step back.

First, the newly appointed Syrian government announced Tuesday it had endorsed a decree to end the country's reviled emergency law, in place since the Baath Party came to power in 1963. No sooner was that done, when its Interior Ministry announced it had banned all street protests that don't have the permission of the ministry.

The good-cop/bad-cop routine is wearing thin as Syrians begin to doubt whether President Bashar al-Assad can provide the kind of reforms called for in protests across the country. Where once there was hope in the relatively young ruler, aged 45, people now believe he must change the behaviour of his security forces.

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Early Tuesday, those forces opened fire to disperse thousands of protesters in Homs, where 17 people had been killed Sunday night. Human-rights activists said at least three more people were killed.

That brings to more than 150 the number of protesters killed in the uprising that began March 15. Some groups put the number at more than 200.

Announcing the decree to end the emergency law and to regulate the right of peaceful protest, Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said: "This will reinforce security and will protect the dignity of the citizens." The right to protest, he said "is similar to those in place in most countries of the world, particularly in European countries and the United States."

Even before the announcement was made, however, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar undercut the measure, declaring Syrians must "refrain from taking part in all marches, demonstrations or sit-ins under any banner whatsoever."

He warned that if demonstrations were held, "the laws in force in Syria will be applied in the interest of the safety of the people and the stability of the country."

Syrian Druze patrons at a popular main street restaurant here in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights shook their heads in dismay as they watched the announcements on Syrian TV.

"The latest incidents have shown that ... armed Salafist groups, particularly in the cities of Homs and Banias, have openly called for armed revolt," the announcer said, quoting another Interior Ministry statement.

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The announcer went on to say that "armed criminal gangs" had killed a Syrian security commander and his two children, and had "mutilated" the bodies.

Then, surprisingly, the Syrian newscast displayed two of the bodies, with the camera slowly panning over the commander and one of his children, lingering over their multiple bloody wounds.

Hisham, a businessman, reacted angrily: "Maybe one person is killed, alright, but the regime kills thousands of people, and thousands more are in jail."

"If you want your pride, you have to fight for it," he said.

"I support Bashar," acknowledged Kassem, a local shopkeeper, "but the killing has to stop. They're killing our own people."

With foreign journalists barred from entering Syria at this time, the citizens in this community of 10,000, about 50 kilometres southwest of Damascus, provide a glimpse into how Syrians are viewing things. While a well-guarded frontier prevents easy movement into Syria proper, the people here have family and friends on the other side and view themselves as Syrian.

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"We have to stick with Bashar," insisted a young man who declined to give his name. "He provides us [Syrian Druze in the Golan Heights]with scholarships - 30 of them every year."

"If Bashar goes we'll end up with the Muslim Brotherhood [running Syria] and we'll get nothing."

"No," said Munir, an apple farmer. "He's got to go. Bashar is the king of corruption. There won't be real change as long as he's in power."

Doesn't Munir worry about the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood coming to power?

"If it's democratic, and they win, give them a try," he answered.

Salman Fakhriddin of al-Marsad, the Arab Centre for Human Rights in Golan, explains that most people in this tightly knit community oppose the Syrian regime's oppressive treatment, but say they haven't given up on the regime itself.

"Some people genuinely believe in it," he says, "others fear it."

Mona, who runs a small shop of children's clothes, is typical. "I feel for the young people," she said. "I want reform, but I want stability too."

"Bashar still doesn't seem to realize he's in a crisis," Mr. Fakhriddin said. "He's selling old goods."

"He has to cut off the branch he's standing on," Mr. Fakhriddin said, referring to the corruption that is endemic in the President's family and among his fellow Alawites. "And then he has to try to hang on somehow."

"Frankly," he said, "I hope he can hang on, because there's no organized opposition in the country. I can't imagine what will happen without him."

"Forget it," said Hisham, speaking the kind of language that a lot of his friends in the café didn't want to hear. "We're the lucky ones to be occupied by Israel. It's much better here than in Syria," he said. "Long live the occupation."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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