Damascus, it seems, does not care for Barack Obama's advice. In a much anticipated policy speech on Thursday, May 19, the U.S. President urged Syria's President Bashar Assad to take steps toward political transition or else "get out of the way." Said Obama: "The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests." It wasn't as if no one was listening. That evening, people in Damascus sat in shops and cafés drinking mint tea and smoking from water pipes as they watched the speech, which was dubbed into Arabic. The American President's remarks were also shown in major squares around Damascus on large displays that normally screen commercials.
On Friday, however, reports of deaths filtered in from throughout Syria as security forces fired on demonstrators who took to the streets after noon prayers, as has been their custom for the past couple of months. According to activists inside and outside the country, perhaps 30 people have been killed and scores more injured a clear indication that Obama's words have not had the desired effect on the country's ruling clique.
In fact, the Syrian regime rejected Obama's advice and accused him of propagating unrest. "Obama is inciting violence when he says that Assad and his regime will face challenges from the inside and will be isolated on the outside if he fails to adopt democratic reforms," the official news agency, SANA, said.
Thousands took to the streets on Friday in Banyas on the Mediterranean coast, in Homs in central Syria and outside Dara'a, a southern town that has been the focus of Syrian protests and where human-rights groups say mass graves have been found. There were also rallies in the two major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, despite an increased presence of security forces. The protests were quickly dispersed by police, in many cases violently, according to activists. The government insists that many protesters are armed criminals or militant extremists.
As the holy day for Muslims, Fridays had usually been quiet until the uprising in Dara'a turned Friday prayers into an occasion to gather and to march. But the past week has seen the government impose an unnatural calm. In fact, this Friday, Damascus was eerily silent all day. In a leafy residential area, there were no signs that the country was going through a crisis even though word was that a protest had taken place in the neighborhood earlier in the day. People say they are afraid to wander around, as they might be suspected of attending rallies and get arrested. Only the odd shop remains open, and the secret police can be seen, in their leather jackets, drinking coffee and eyeing the few pedestrians.
The protests have continued, though the freshest news is conveyed by word of mouth in the capital. A Damascus resident, who asked to be referred to as Mohammed, said that a protest of "about two to three hundred" started as young men left the mosque after Friday prayers. "When the men entered the mosque in the morning, the police asked them for their I.D. cards," Mohammed said. "It's a form of intimidation the police want people to understand that the security forces know who they are and will arrest them if they demonstrate."
The worshipers were seemingly unperturbed; after finishing prayers, they filtered out into a street where they normally protest, chanting slogans against their President of 11 years. But, said Mohammed, the security forces were waiting for them. Dressed in pseudo uniforms of black leather jackets and beige trousers, the ubiquitous secret policemen are far from clandestine. As the protesters approached the leather-clad line, Mohammed said, the police pulled batons out from their shirts and starting beating them. Tear gas was fired into the crowd, which scattered within seconds.
"The problem is that protesters can't even take to the streets. Anything that is organized guarantees that the police will be there and willing to be brutal," Mohammed said. "Most of the protest organizers are now in prison," he added. The few who have been released have come out with broken bones and bruises from beatings. There's a subtle and grim joke in Syria: they only serve bitter coffee in prison.
Friday's violence shows that despite mounting international pressure, the Assad government is still willing to shoot protesters. On Wednesday, the U.S. slapped sanctions on President Assad for the first time, and a European diplomat in Damascus says the European Union is expected to follow suit on Monday. "Sanctions can be used in two ways: as a lever and as punishment," a Western diplomat in Damascus said. "It is generally accepted that sanctions only really work as a lever. This is why we [originally] placed sanctions on members of Assad's government but not the man himself as a warning and to stop the violence." The diplomat said that as police brutality continued, the international community was forced to take action in the form of sanctions on the President. "With hundreds of people dying, we had to punish Assad," he said. But Syria has entered a stalemate: the seemingly fearless protesters are still demonstrating, and the police are still firing on them. The American President's words may have only hardened the resolve on both sides.