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Syria Lifts Emergency Law as Protesters Come Under Fire in Syrian City of Homs

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Syrian police reportedly opened fire and used tear gas today on thousands of anti-government protesters who occupied a key square in the Syrian city of Homs. More than 10,000 protesters gathered there Monday after funerals for an estimated 25 activists killed over the weekend. They demanded the immediate lifting of Syria’s longstanding emergency laws, the release of political prisoners, and the immediate resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, newly released diplomatic cables from the online whistleblower WikiLeaks show the United States has secretly financed Syrian opposition groups and activities since at least 2005. We speak with Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today in Syria, police reportedly opened fire and used tear gas on thousands of anti-government protesters who occupied a key square in the Syrian city of Homs. More than 10,000 protesters gathered in Homs on Monday after funerals for an estimated 25 activists who were killed over the weekend. Human rights groups say at least 200 people have been killed since anti-government demonstrations began in mid-March.

Protesters demanded the immediate lifting of Syria’s longstanding emergency laws, the release of political prisoners, and the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad. He assumed the presidency in 2000 when his father Hafez al-Assad died after 30 years in power. Bashar al-Assad has vowed to lift Syria’s nearly 50-year emergency law. Opposition leaders say they expect he’ll impose new legislation maintaining the same restrictions on speech and assembly.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Bassam Haddad, the director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University. His book, Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience, is being published later this year.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Haddad. Can you talk about this latest attack on the protesters in Homs?

BASSAM HADDAD: Well, what we have in the past evening, last night, was a protest of about 10,000 or more people — we don’t have exact numbers — who, actually, for the first time in the recent weeks, have actually taken the Clock Square, which is now being dubbed “Tahrir Square” in Homs, and have just sat in the square and announced that they will not leave until their demands are met. And of course, this was not the case. At about 1:45 a.m. in Syria, the police dispersed the protesters using tear gas and live bullets. There are reports of a few serious injuries and, so far, one fatality, which is actually rather surprising considering the amount of fire that was shot and considering what the regime announced right before they actually did so, which is basically that they claimed that this is in fact an armed insurrection that is taking place in Homs, and they basically announced that there are Salafi Islamist groups that are leading these protests, which is a pretext for the regime to give itself a carte blanche in responding.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Homs, what role it has played in Syrian history?

BASSAM HADDAD: Well, Homs is the biggest province in Syria, and it’s quite diverse. And it has been a site of a few insurrections historically. It has also been a site of mobilization for Islamists in the recent past. And it is likely to be — to continue to be one of the main engines for the development of the protest movements, partly because it’s a major metropolitan city and partly because it’s somewhat remote from the two largest cities in Syria, where the presence of the state and police and security services is quite heavier. So, you will see around Homs the kind of momentum that we saw in other places, something that is radically different than Daraa — than Daraa in the south of Syria, and it also is — Homs, that is — close to Hama, which is the site of the Brotherhood or Muslim Brotherhood’s insurrection in the '70s and early ’80s. It's about 30 minutes, 35 minutes away from Homs. So I think it will become the focus in the next few days.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about that Muslim Brotherhood insurrection and what happened, the response of Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father.

BASSAM HADDAD: Well, in — I mean, this is an old story, in the sense that it didn’t actually just happen in 1982, when the state responded by literally destroying a good part — some people say one quarter — of the old city of Hama and led to the killing of many, many thousands of people. There are no exact records. But this is something that started in 1964, at least, when the Islamists were excluded once again from participating in fledgling Arab states that are — that were at the time, in post-colonial times, developing in various directions. And it made a —- it created a problem in Syria in terms of the Ba’ath Party, the secular nationalist, socialist Ba’ath Party. The state opposition dynamic between, of course, the state of the Islamists continued until the early ’70s, when Hafez Assad became president. The hostilities continued and took a sectarian turn in the early to mid—’70s, and the escalation culminated in the 1982 strike by the regime against the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which led to the killing — I mean, the numbers vary between 10,000 to 30,000 deaths, of course most of whom were not fighters, because of the magnitude of the killing. And now we have — or at least since 1982, for the past, perhaps, 30 years, we have had very little Islamist or Brotherhood activity in Syria.

Now, what is being claimed is that there is an insurrection, not of the Muslim Brotherhood, but of the Salafi movement, which is a strict Sunni approach that is viewed to be even more reactionary than the Muslim Brotherhood. And I think that is — whether or not this is true, in part, I think that’s more of a warning that this protest or this situation in Syria might actually escalate into something more sectarian. This is the regime’s message. And it does resonate with a good majority of Syrians, who are concerned about this situation descending into a sectarian strife. So, it also could backfire, because the regime, in the end, faces a majoritarian Sunni society, so it depends no — in my view, it depends on what happens in the streets. If the regime continues to batter and shoot using live bullets, the fortunes of the regime, in terms of its media war and its narrative, I think, will decline very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Haddad, I wanted to ask you about the newly released diplomatic cables from the online whistleblower WikiLeaks, showing the United States has secretly financed Syrian opposition groups and activities since at least 2005. The funding has gone to a number of projects, including the London-based satellite channel Barada TV. At a news conference yesterday, State Department Spokesman Mark Toner was questioned about the U.S. role.

REPORTER: Are we working to undermine that government or not? That’s a very —

MARK TONER: No, we are not working to undermine that government. What we are trying to do in Syria through our civil society support is to build the kind of democratic institutions, frankly, that we’re trying to do in countries around the globe. My own personal experience, when I was in Poland in the 1990s, we worked enormously with civil society and non-governmental organizations. The difference here, as I said, is that the Syrian government perceives this kind of assistance as a threat to its existence.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the State Department spokesperson, Mark Toner. Professor Bassam Haddad, your response?

BASSAM HADDAD: I mean, to speak of the United States funding opposition groups in certain countries in the Middle East, I mean, it’s nothing new, and it hasn’t started in 2005 or 2006. It’s been the case. There’s been attempts to fund groups that are in the opposition in Syria or individuals that are sitting right here, perhaps one or two miles down the street from where I’m sitting in Washington, D.C. And we all know who these groups are, and we all know who these individuals are. The important thing is that a lot of these groups and individuals are not considered legitimate by a good majority of the Syrian opposition that is indigenous, that is organic, that is — basically that exists in Syria. There is a notion that American support is like basically — is like poison, in the sense that if you are considered to be supported by an American side and you are part of the Syrian opposition, not only are you considered an enemy by the Syrian state, but you’re also ostracized or excluded from a good majority of the organic Syrian opposition, because of the imperialist undertones of this kind of support. So there’s nothing new about the American support.

It’s clear that there are forces outside Syria, including U.S. foreign policy and its unprincipled stance in the Middle East generally, and certainly when it comes to Syria, including the state of Israel, including some Arab states, perhaps Saudi Arabia, some factions in Lebanon. There are a lot of forces that want to see the Syrian regime fall. This is not a secret, and it’s not a surprise. The problem is that the Syrian regime assumes that if these forces did not intend to wreak havoc in Syria, that the Syrian polity or the Syrian people would be comfortable and satisfied with the status quo, and that is not the case. So there is something to the Syrian regime’s narrative, and it’s true, and we should not just dismiss it, because we dismiss many of the Syrian regime’s claims. This is actually the case. There are people and infiltrators trying to create problems for the Syrian regime.

But absent these efforts, there is still a legitimate majority Syrian voice that wants an end to the one-party rule. And the formula that we’re witnessing today, the new formula, is not about narrative and counter-narrative. We have to actually go deeper and just look at the basic problem of the continuation of one-party rule, which is no longer acceptable, as we see —- as we saw in the region. This is something that hopefully will become part of the past, and the Syrian regime will not be able to overcome this period without slowly, gradually, but certainly, starting immediately, without dismantling its one-party rule and various other issues. But I think the -—

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Haddad, let me interrupt and ask about the opposition leaders questioning Bashar al-Assad, saying he will lift Syria’s nearly 50-year emergency law, but they say that he will then impose new legislation, maintaining the same restrictions on speech and assembly.

BASSAM HADDAD: Yeah, this is — I mean, interestingly, this is where I was going. And that is, it’s no longer enough and it’s no longer sufficient to lift the emergency law, because, first of all, there are other laws that already exist in the Syrian legal system that would give the state some of the same jurisdiction and some of the same legal right to crack down, besides the emergency law. The second point is that it’s going to be replaced by an anti-terrorism law or a set of laws that are in the vicinity of what can be considered anti-terrorism, and that is going to actually allow the regime to crack down on any opposition, especially if it gives it an Islamist coloring, on the basis that it is cracking down on terrorism. So there will be very little distinction between them, and that’s why I’m emphasizing that we need to go a little deeper and not think about these legal systems, because it’s —- we’re beyond that point. And pay attention to if and when the Syrian regime begins to talk about transitioning from the Ba’athist one-party rule to something that is more diverse and that allows various groups to form and organize political parties. I think if we do not see -—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in Homs, they’re calling for his overthrow. They’re calling for Bashar al-Assad’s ouster. Finally, how significant are these protests this week?

BASSAM HADDAD: And what I have been saying in the past couple of days is basically that we are entering a very decisive week. And I think that the proclamations by the regime and by Bashar Assad might begin to fall on deaf ears, because we might have crossed into the point of no return in terms of what the regime can do politically. So, what I’m saying in terms of movement to one — to elimination of the one-party rule is perhaps the only exit, not out of the entire tense situation, but a way to placate some of the extremist views and to prevent the majority of Syrians to basically join in what might become new Tahrir Square-like gatherings in various Syrian cities. So, it is really a decisive week, and it seems that the regime, by not taking advantage of some of the opportunities it had in the first two speeches, it seems that it is making itself more and more irrelevant, irrespective of what concessions it makes.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bassam Haddad, thank you very much for being with us, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University. His forthcoming book is called Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience.

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