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Syrian Protesters: Government Forces Kill Dozens


In Syria, a violent uprising is happening in a most unlikely spot. For days now, protests against the government have been taking place in the small border city of Daraa. Those leading the protests say that dozens of people have been killed by government forces. And today, there are demonstrations of a very different kind in the streets of the capital, Damascus, in support of the government.

Joining us from Damascus is Phil Sands. He's a reporter for the National, an English-language newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. PHIL SANDS (Reporter, The National): Hi.

MONTAGNE: And tell us what you are seeing on the streets there, in Damascus.

Mr. SANDS: Well, we've just come out of afternoon prayers. And I was down in Umayyad Mosque, which is - it's the largest mosque in Damascus, a very important place where a little more than two weeks ago, there were some spontaneous anti-government protests there. Today, we were expecting to see -or there had been the rumors that there would be more anti-government protests in Damascus. But instead, we saw some very well-organized pro-government demonstrations.

Basically, at the time when prayers were finishing, some crowds appeared outside the mosque, and they were chanting for Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. They went inside the mosque, into the courtyard, where they chanted and shouted in favor of the government. Then they came out and marched off.

There were some very minor scuffles at that time. There was one arrest. One man was bundled into a car. And there was a huge security presence.

And, in fact, while I was standing there, a gentleman did sidle up to me and say: I hope you realize that all these protestors are actually working for the security. So that was kind of interesting.

MONTAGNE: Well, contrast that with what you know is going on in Daraa, that border city that's become a focal point of anti-government sentiment.

Mr. SANDS: Yeah. Obviously, down there, we've not really had good access to that place. It's been kind of sealed to journalists. But there were tens thousands of people reportedly taking to the streets down there. And then instead of shouting the president's name, they'll(ph) use the word freedom. So, yeah, a sharp contrast.

And it looked very much as though, you know, what's happening today is a response by the government to try and head off any unrest or any spread of demonstrations. And also, a show of support for the package of mooted reforms that they announced last night.

MONTAGNE: Well, those reforms - you know, give us a little perspective, here. It's Syria. The president - long-time President Bashar Assad. He inherited the job from his father. What is the general source of discontent there?

Mr. SANDS: The problem people have - I mean, they're numerous, I suppose. One of the things that affects most people is poverty and rising prices. There is also a series - a booming population, and a very young population. And there's a sense of frustration among those youngsters. And certainly, the government has ruled under emergency law since 1963. That's almost five decades, now. You know, in Yemen, for example, the president there - who's obviously facing his own anti-government demonstrators - only recently introduced emergency law.

So, in Syria, they've been living with these for decades. And they've effectively suppressed freedom of thought and freedom of movement, and those kinds of things.

Now, there have been reforms, and a softening of that under President Assad, who's been in charge now for 11 years. But the situation is still - it's still difficult for people. The anti-government demonstrators, they're calling for an end to emergency laws, to arbitrary arrests and detentions and the kind of -basically, a very pervasive security apparatus. That is one of the key things.

They also want a chance to earn a living, which is not always easy in Syria. And one of the things they've been chanting about is corruption, which basically means that the ruling elites have access to all the business opportunities, all the money, all the power in this kind of nexus of political power and commercial power. And ordinary people, unless they have good connections, really don't access that. So there's anger about that, as well.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, if the protests continue, or if they spread, what might the government of President Bashar Assad be expected to do?

Mr. SANDS: Well, it's a difficult one to say. They've been up and down in the way they've responded. So far, there have been two kinds of response. They've responded with an iron fist. Report - you know, we've seen shootings in streets down in Daraa. And they've also responded with this package of political reforms - or, again, they say they will put through political reforms, but they haven't actually taken much action on that yet. So we don't really know.

It's a government that - of course, people here still remember the 1980s and Hama, when, you know, as many as 20,000 people were killed when an - a militant anti-government uprising was suppressed there. So people don't know whether or not there will a soft hand or a hard hand. We just don't know. It's uncharted territory. So it's one of these things that time will tell.

MONTAGNE: Journalist Phil Sands, speaking to us from the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Thanks very much.

Mr. SANDS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.