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Syrian Official Source: More than 1 Million SMS Most From “Israel” Call on Syrians to Start Riots Coincidence?

Posted on: March 23, 2011

Six days after trouble first started in the southern Syrian town of Deraa, it seems to be proving hard for the authorities to contain it.

With access by independent reporters severely restricted, there are conflicting accounts about what happened on Tuesday night near the al-Omari mosque, which has become the focal point of continuing unrest in Deraa.

Both the official accounts and those of activists agreed that about half-a-dozen people were killed, making it the bloodiest single incident since Deraa was paralysed by protests and a security crackdown late last week.

Activists said the victims, including a medical team, were killed when security forces attacked protesters who had settled around the mosque and vowed to remain there till their demands were met.

But the official state media said the medics and a policeman died when an ambulance came under fire from the “armed gang” which they blamed for the trouble.

State TV and the official news agency carried pictures of arms, ammunition and wads of cash they said were found in the mosque.

They said weapons and advanced communications equipment had been smuggled across the border from Israel, which they said was also the origin of more than a million SMS messages urging Syrians to use mosques as bases for fomenting trouble.

They dismissed messages and pictures sent by locals to the outside world as “lies put about to incite and frighten people with stories of a massacre in Deraa, whose people are in fact co-operating with the security forces to chase the armed gang”.
‘Gravest internal challenge’

The continuing disturbances come despite official efforts to calm the situation by despatching high-ranking delegations to the area.

The governor of Deraa, Feisal Kalthoum, is also reported to have been dismissed, though there has been no official announcement.

Syria has clearly joined the growing list of Arab countries being shaken by populist uprisings demanding change and reform.

Although the movement there is just starting to stir, President Bashar al-Assad is widely deemed to be facing his gravest internal challenge since he took office in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafiz.

On the face of it, Syria shares many of the qualifications which led to the overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and which underlie the upheavals in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.

Although President Assad has only been in power for a decade, the Baathist system of which he is the scion has been in place since his father, an Air Force commander, staged his Corrective Movement coup in 1970.

Like the other threatened Arab regimes, Syria is riddled with high-level corruption and cronyism, linked to political repression enforced by pervasive security services operating unaccountably under draconian state of emergency laws in place for nearly 50 years.

It has the additional factor that much power is concentrated in the hands of Mr Assad’s minority Alawite sect (an obscure offshoot of Shia Islam), to the resentment of many in the Sunni majority community.

But there are other elements tending in the regime’s favour, notably its nationalist stance in holding firm against Israel and, at times, the western powers.

Much will depend on how Mr Assad deals with the immediate flashpoint for dissent, which flared late last week in Deraa.
No illusions

Up until then, there had been some attempts to mobilise opposition in Damascus and elsewhere, but they fizzled out, leaving the impression that the materials in Syria were not as instantly combustible as they were in other Arab countries.

But thanks to heavy-handed official overreaction to minor local incidents, Deraa suddenly produced the kind of burning popular outrage that has spread like forest fires in other countries.

In Tunis in particular, the protest movement erupted out of regional grievances in outlying areas, and moved rapidly to the big cities.

Syrian leaders have no illusions about immunity.

Shortly after the Tunisian revolution, and before Egypt burst into flames, a top Syrian figure remarked privately: “It is a message to all of us.”

More recently, a senior Syrian diplomat said: “It’s happening all over the region now, and Syria cannot be an exception.”

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