Syrian security forces wielding assault rifles deployed in the flashpoint city of Homs, a witness said today, ready for large demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule after Friday prayers.
Homs has emerged as the new focal point of protests in Syria, where demonstrators inspired by other Arab uprisings have filled the streets to demand greater freedoms from Assad, whose security apparatus, dominated by minority Alawites, has used repression and brutality to cow protesters.
Residents, fearing more attacks by Alawite gunmen known as “al-shabbiha,” have organised themselves into unarmed groups to guard neighbourhoods, said the witness, who passed through two security police roadblocks to reach Homs.
“The atmosphere is tense. Another day of strikes is planned tomorrow,” the witness said.
The witness, a human rights campaigner who did not want to be further identified, was referring to shops that closed after 21 protesters were shot dead by security police and shabbiha on Monday and Tuesday, according to rights campaigners.
“People in Homs are scared and angry,” Wissam Tarif, who is in contact with people in Homs and is director of the Insan human rights group, told Reuters.
“Shabbiha and security are obvious in the streets. Kalashnikovs and other weapons are in their hands. Al Saha al Jadida square is packed with security forces. Security is mixed between civilian and uniformed,” he said.
The protesters have been demanding political freedom, demands which intensified after a tribal figure died in custody following a demonstration in Homs 10 days ago. Many protesters have also voiced anger about corruption in the ruling hierarchy.
Demonstrations in Syria first erupted in the south last month. Homs, a strategic city 165 km off a main highway north of Damascus, is the latest trouble spot.
The protests, the most serious since an armed revolt by Islamists in 1982, have included ordinary Syrians, secularists, leftists, tribalists, Islamists and students.
The demands of ordinary Syrians go beyond democratic freedoms to a better quality of life. Twelve percent of the country’s 20 million people live below the poverty line and the gap between rich and poor has widened in recent years.
Assad has tried to defuse the popular hostility to his 11 years of autocratic rule by ordering his new cabinet to end the 48-year-old state of emergency, reaching out to conservative Muslims and giving citizenship to many ethnic minority Kurds who complain of discrimination.
Opposition figures are sceptical about the conciliatory moves and want deep-rooted reforms.
Rights groups say more than 200 people have been killed since protests started. Washington said a new law requiring permits to hold demonstrations made it unclear if the end of emergency rule would make for a less restrictive Syrian state.
A witness said a small protest broke out today in the northeastern region of al-Hasaka, where many Kurds live.
The United States tentatively joined a Western drive to rehabilitate Assad after Barack Obama became president two years ago, while remaining critical of Syria’s human rights record.
Syria is involved in several Middle East conflicts. Assad, backed by his family and the security apparatus, is Syria’s absolute ruler and any changes at the top would ripple across the Arab world and affect Syria’s Shi’ite Muslim ally Iran.
The leadership backs the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah but wants peace with Israel.
Assad was isolated by the West after the 2005 assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, the Lebanese former prime minister and businessman, but relations had been improving until Syrian security forces began using force to try to crush protesters.
In Homs, protesters called on Wednesday for “the downfall of the regime,” a stronger demand than their early appeal for more freedom.
Authorities have described the unrest as an insurrection by Salafist groups trying to terrorise the population. They have blamed the violence on armed groups and infiltrators supplied with weapons from Lebanon and Iraq.
SANA said Assad had appointed a new governor for the central city after firing the previous one earlier this month.
Najati Tayara, a prominent human rights defender in Homs, said the appointment of General Ghassan Abdelal, a respected 71- year-old army officer not tainted by corruption and known for being “calm and reasonable,” was a “wise step.”
But Tayara said the presence of sizeable security forces in Homs suggested authorities “were preparing for a confrontation” with pro-democracy demonstrators after prayers on Friday.