Slaughter of the olive branch martyrs

Published in The Mail on Sunday (May 1st, 2011)

The story of the Syrian uprising is being told in short sentences. The regime has driven out foreign journalists, tortures people found with satellite phones and shoots those filming protests on mobile phones. So news seeps out on Twitter and signs held aloft at demonstrations.

The signs began by demanding reform in a mood of optimism amid the Arab Spring. Then they stressed unity, not sectarianism. Now they are held by small children in a city stained with blood. And they simply say ‘Thirsty’ or ‘Please help – I am hungry’.

Deraa, where the uprising began following the arrest of teenagers for scrawling graffiti on a wall, is a city under siege. Elite troops under the command of President Bashar Assad’s brother Maher moved in on Monday and cut off all communications.

Terrified families now hide in their homes, with food and water supplies running low. Snipers even shoot water butts to worsen the agony.

At least 15 of the 62 people killed on Friday were from nearby villages, gunned down as they carried food and olive branches – a symbol of peace – in a bid to break the siege. More died inside the city, once again at the centre of national bloodletting that has left more than 500 dead.

Yesterday, heavy artillery opened fire at 3am and six more people were reported killed. ‘We are totally besieged,’ one resident told broadcaster Al-Jazeera, the crackle of gunfire audible in the background. ‘Houses are levelled by shelling from the army. Bodies are still lying in the streets – many are bloated and reeking.’

Two weeks ago, when I was in Syria, I saw military vehicles laden with razor wire heading towards Deraa. Now tanks control the roads in and out of the city while shops are shuttered and families cower from roaming gangs of black-clad soldiers and rooftop snipers.

‘I saw a young man in the street shot with a single round,’ said an eyewitness. ‘When his brother went to help him he too was shot with a single round. Then a neighbour went out to try and collect the two bodies and he was shot.’

There were reports last night that soldiers raided the home of the blind imam of the Omari Mosque, the focus for protests in the town. Sources claimed his son was executed for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of his father.

There have been similar lockdowns in a handful of other towns. The aim is to intimidate the rest of the country – ‘like when the security forces take one of your friends or beat your brother,’ said one activist. It is, however, a chilling echo of the siege of Hama in 1982 by Assad’s father before the town was flattened, with the deaths of more than 20,000 people.

This was the crunch week for the Syrian uprising. The government, having killed 112 protesters the previous weekend and still blaming outside forces, warned of vicious reprisals if people returned to the streets. Yet in villages, towns and cities across the country, Friday prayers were followed by protests against the Assad family’s corrupt and despotic regime.

‘In my heart, I did not want people to come out again because I knew there would be more blood,’ one human rights activist told me. ‘But people cannot be stopped now. It has gone too far.’

When the protests began seven weeks ago, Assad responded with a muddling mixture of repression and reform. Now the nation is locked into a deadly cycle of protests and repression. Increasingly, the crowds chant ‘Death over indignity’.

Given the nation’s pivotal role in the Middle East, diplomats watch nervously. They fear the numbers killed are far higher than reported, with hundreds of people rounded up over the past fortnight.

Even hospitals are on the frontline, with doctors and nurses prevented from leaving by troops insisting only military personnel can be treated.

There are two key questions. First, what comes next? Protesters have called for a campaign of countrywide demonstrations starting tomorrow for ‘the week of breaking the siege’.

But despite talk of mutinies and some evidence of small-scale defections, the bulk of the army appears to have stayed loyal – unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where it proved pivotal in ousting dictators. Without their support, it is hard to see the regime crumbling fast, despite resignations from the ruling Ba’ath party yesterday.

Second, can the international community do much more than wring its hands? Unfortunately, many remain deluded that this mild-mannered despot is at heart a reformer.

So the US imposed the softest of new sanctions on Friday but none on Assad himself, beyond preventing him buying a private plane. And a resolution condemning Syria’s human rights violations was opposed by two of the five members of the UN security council.

One brave Syrian protester yesterday responded by flashing up a sarcastic sign on film footage smuggled out by the increasingly-organised opposition saying, ‘China and Russia, thank you . . . we are dying.’ The world should heed his message.

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