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Syria Attacks Protesters with Tanks, Naval Bombardment: “The Regime Has Made War Against the People”

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Syria has intensified its crackdown on opposition protesters despite growing international pressure. This morning, Syrian tanks and gunboats reportedly shelled the main Mediterranean port city of Latakia, killing one person and bringing the total dead to at least 28 since government forces moved into the city on Saturday. The violence follows massive demonstrations on Friday in which tens of thousands of people turned out to protest the Assad regime. On Saturday, a large crowd of mourners gathered in Douma, a suburb of the capital Damascus, for the funerals of four protesters who activists say were killed by security forces. We speak with Haitham Maleh, a leading human rights attorney in Syria who was released from prison earlier this year. We are also joined by his son Iyas Maleh, a Syrian human rights activist. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Syria, where the government has intensified its crackdown on opposition protesters despite growing international pressure. This morning, Syrian tanks reportedly shelled the main Mediterranean port city of Latakia, as President Bashar al-Assad broadened a military offensive to crush street protests against his rule. At least one person was killed in today’s attacks, according to activists, bringing the total killed to at least 28 since security forces moved into the city on Saturday.

A Syrian military source denied as “absolutely baseless” media reports that Syrian gunboats shelled neighborhoods in Latakia. But Al Jazeera cited activists as saying Syrian gunboats firing heavy machine guns pounded the city, and videos uploaded by activists Sunday to a social media website show parts of the city under attack.

Latakia has seen large anti-government protest since the Syrian uprising began in mid-March. The violence follows massive demonstrations Friday, in which tens of thousands of people turned out to protest the Assad regime.

On Saturday, a large crowd of mourners gathered in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, for the funerals of four protesters. According to video uploaded by activists, the protesters were killed Friday by security forces. Foreign media and observers are banned from Syria, so these videos could not be independently verified.

PROTESTER: [translated] We do not bow for anyone but God. This is the funeral in Douma for the martyrs of Friday’s “We Do Not Bow for Anyone but God” protest. Their names are Fatema Kareem, Basam Toukhi, Mohammad Beitar and Khalid Suleik.

AMY GOODMAN: Western powers and Syria’s neighbors have been pressing for an end to the violence. Last week, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Syria would be better off without Assad.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: I think we’ve made clear that we believe, the President believes, that Syria will be better off—would be better off without President Assad. The international community is increasingly speaking with one voice on Syria in unified condemnation of Assad’s brutality against his people.

AMY GOODMAN: To find out about what is happening now in Syria, we’re going to go to London to talk to Haitham Maleh, longtime human rights attorney in Syria. He was released from prison earlier this year. Haitham is with his son, Iyas Maleh, a Syrian human rights activist who splits his time between Brussels and the United States. Iyas is also president of the Haitham Maleh Foundation.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

HAITHAM MALEH: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Haitham, let us begin with you. It’s good to have you with us, for you to—that you are safe. You were underground. You were in prison. Now you’re out of Syria. First of all, how did you get out?

HAITHAM MALEH: It was a dream, really. I was dreaming I get out because I was—it was not been able to go out Syria since seven years. So at least I ask the emergency—immigration, sorry—immigration police to let me leave, because they stopped me against the law. And I explained what kind of law in the paper. And I wait for two months. At least I send my colleague to the immigration to ask. So he told me that I can leave, whatever I need. I did not believe, but another time I send another lawyer. Also, he said, “You can leave, whatever you need.” So I went to the police and get my passport in one hour, and I took—got my [inaudible] visa also. I didn’t believe that I will leave shore, but after the aeroplane be on the sky, I believe that I left.

AMY GOODMAN: What is happening in Syria right now, Haitham Maleh?

HAITHAM MALEH: It’s a kind of war. The regime make war against the people. Since around four months, 3,000 tanks cover all Syria. They are running here and here, from city to city, from village to village, attack people, attack mosques, attack buildings, everything. That’s security service, and those people, we call them “Al-Shabiha.” In another hand, they attack the people by air force, by ship from the sea, from Mediterranean Sea, opposite of Latakia. So now we lost more than around 3,000 persons killed, 3,000 disappear, about more than 20,000 prisoners. And we had before five. So, now we have more than 25,000 prisoners in jails. There is no jails enough to hold the people inside. They use schools and other building to put the people.

And you see the international community still do not take a good step to finish this regime, to throw them out of Syria. President Barack Obama said that a Syria without Bashar Assad will be better. In my opinion, this is good step, but Syria without the family Assad, all, will be more comfort, more—yeah, feel better than—without them, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The L.A. Los Angeles Times is saying, “The Local Coordination [Committees], a network of activists, alleges that authorities in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, have begun systematically killing detainees in an attempt to discourage participation in the protest movement.” And the Los Angeles Times is also saying that the Syrian president might be trying to put down the protest with the naval bombardment of the Mediterranean port before international pressure intensifies. Do you agree with this assessment?

HAITHAM MALEH: No, I don’t agree. The regime in Syria always lie. We do not trust them at all, not now. Eleven years passed in his time. He did not take any good step to finish all the [inaudible] from his father’s time 'til now. And he rules the country in the same way as his father's time, and nothing changed.

AMY GOODMAN: Iyas Maleh, what do you think of the Western response? What do you think the United States, where you live—I met you many years ago in Dallas; you now live in Florida—what do you think the U.S. needs to do?

IYAS MALEH: Well, they—really, it took them five months to finally say that Assad has lost his legitimacy, that Syria is better off without Bashar al-Assad. It’s been long due, but finally we are here. We are glad, finally, that they reached that understanding, which we have been trying to convince them for many, many years, that this regime is—as like you were talking about, your previous episode, about governments that just take the money of the people and oppress them, this is a government that takes the money of the people and then suck their blood. I mean, they are bloodsuckers who have been killing the Syrian people for the past 40 years, since his father came into power. And unfortunately, the international community, including the United States, has turned a blind eye towards this regime. Finally, we are here.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent of Britain, “This slaughter will end only when words of condemnation are acted on.” He argued, quote, “Most of the dictators, in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain, in the rest of the Middle East, would still prefer a 'reformed' Assad to freedom, dignity and liberty for his people. The Israelis don’t want regime change in Damascus. Do the Americans?

“You only have to compare Obama’s reaction to the massacre in Norway and to the infinitely larger blood-shedding in Syria. Obama described how the Norwegian killings 'broke his heart'. Yet the slaughter of far more innocents in Syria merely elicits the idea that the United States can live without Assad if he goes.”

Let me put that question to Haitham Maleh. The U.S. response, is it adequate?

HAITHAM MALEH: We know that all Arabic countries rule by dictatorship regimes. It’s not from now. George Bush, Bush the son, said before he left that United States help the dictatorship regimes in Arabic countries since 60 years. In my opinion, from the long time, from history, United States and the West do not want us to be as democracy regime. They want to help the dictatorship regimes, the military regimes, because they want to—they want their interests. They can pass their interests by one man—not by parliament, not by ministers, not like this. So, now I don’t know if really they want to change this idea.

By the way, I want to tell you one thing. The Syrian regime is not a dictator regime only. It’s fascist, fascist dictator regime, killer regime. You cannot compare the regime in Syria like any other, compare in all Arabic world. So, now the time. Now the time, this is the time to change, to throw out this regime out of Syria. And the people do not want them. It’s finished. The game is over.

AMY GOODMAN: And Iyas Maleh, what do you think the U.S. could do to do that?

IYAS MALEH: Well, I think it’s—there are a lot of things that the U.S. government could do. A lot of businesses are being done with Syrian businessmen that are supporting this regime. These need to be cut. There are sanctions that the U.S. can put on individuals that are supporting the regime to basically just close all the money flow into their hands. I mean, now it’s—they’re basically stating that this regime is not legitimate anymore, and asking—I heard that they asked the American citizens to leave—U.S. citizens to leave, you know, Syria. And I think France has done the same recently. So I think there are now—they reached a point of no return with that regime. We have been begging them not to wait until the bloodshed reaches that point and basically state that early on. And again, because this regime really have no legitimacy for 11 years, I don’t know why it took them 11 years, the U.S., to realize that now this regime has lost its legitimacy.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you about—

IYAS MALEH: They really have—

AMY GOODMAN: —Iraq’s support of Syria, of Assad. The New York Times had a piece last week, “Iraqi Leader Backs Syria, with a Nudge from Iran,” that Maliki is a supporter of Bashar al-Assad.

IYAS MALEH: Exactly. We did hear that there was—even some money was delivered as support from Iraqi, you know, regime. That is really unfortunate. Iraqis, who lived under Saddam Hussein for years, and finally they got rid of him. Now they are here to support a criminal as much or even worse, really, as Saddam Hussein. We haven’t seen, really, Saddam Hussein using his army to kill his own people, like we are seeing now Assad is doing, and like his father did for the past, you know, 50 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Haitham Maleh, you were imprisoned under Hafez al-Assad, under the current president’s father. You were underground, as were many activists, most recently. Now you’re out of the country. What are the demands of the Syrian people who are out in the streets all over Syria?

HAITHAM MALEH: I didn’t understand your question.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your demands? What are the demands of the Syrian people?

HAITHAM MALEH: I think all the Syrian people want to see a Syria without family Assad, without all this thieves’ regime. This regime is a kind of mafias. I say that for Christian Science Monitor since more than eight years, Syria ruled by a kind of mafias, several mafias, not only one mafias. Now, 85 percent of our income in their hand, 60 percent of the society under labor or poor, 30 percent of the worker without job. So what’s the situation you see? And they want to have everything. The petrol, they sell the petrol out of any control, out any rule. The parliament has no power to make control against this ministers—council of ministers or against the president himself. So, they took our money. They destroy the country from all sides, from everywhere. They kill the people. ’Til now, we have, as I said, more than 3,000 persons killed, around 125 or 130 children younger than 15, 14 years old. There is some children arrested, in four years old, arrested. You can imagine how this regime is—how kind of this regime. So, there is no way for us. We will not go back to our houses ’til this finishes, ’til this regime is finished.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Haitham Maleh, longtime human rights attorney, has been imprisoned under both governments—the father, Hafez al-Assad, as well as President Assad. His son, also with us, Iyas Maleh, who is president of the Haitham Maleh Foundation. They’re speaking to us from London, where they just flew in late last night.

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