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As Ramadan Begins, Assad Regime Intensifies Deadly Crackdown on Syrian Protesters

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The government crackdown on protesters in Syria has reached a new level of violence just as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has begun. At least six people were killed earlier today, pushing the toll to at least 150 over the last two days. An attack on the central city of Hama began Sunday, when more than 100 people were killed by government forces, and continued into Monday with another 24 dead across the country. Syria has banned most foreign journalists, making it hard to verify exactly what is happening there. We speak with Ziad Majed, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at the American University of Paris and coordinator of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy. [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. The government crackdown on protesters in Syria has reached a new level of violence, just as prayers ended Monday, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. At least six people were killed earlier today, pushing the toll to at least 150 over the last two days. An attack on the central city of Hama began on Sunday, when more than a hundred people were killed by government forces, continued into Monday with another 24 dead across the country.

Syria has banned most foreign journalists, making it hard to verify exactly what’s happening there. But the Associated Press said this morning parts of Hama were hit with heavy machine-gun fire after sporadic shelling overnight. It said one shell hit a compound known as the Palace of Justice, home to several courts, in the city center, causing a huge fire that burned much of the building.

Hama has a special significance in Syria. It’s the site of a 1982 massacre under President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in which as many as 17,000 to 40,000 Syrian citizens were killed.

ABC News reports Secretary Hillary Clinton will meet with a group of Syrian activists and representatives from the Syrian-American community today, as the Obama administration tries to develop its policy as President Assad’s crackdown intensifies.

Meanwhile, addressing a press conference yesterday in Norway, the Turkish foreign minister criticized Syria’s crackdown on protesters in Hama.

AHMET DAVUTOGLU: We strongly condemn this, because the timing and the methodology of this operation both were very wrong. The methodology was wrong, because of the using tanks and heavy arms in a city environment is not proper. The timing, one day before Ramadan, which is the month of peace in the Muslim world, was a very wrong signal to the Syrian people, to the Muslim world and to the global community.

AMY GOODMAN: Witnesses report the Syrian government has used tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons against protesters. Nearly 1,700 Syrians have reportedly been killed since protests against Assad erupted in March.

The European Union said yesterday it’s shocked by Syria’s use of tanks to storm Hama Sunday. The E.U. has increased sanctions against the Syrian regime. This is E.U. spokesman Michael Mann.

MICHAEL MANN: We were extremely shocked and appalled by what happened in Hama yesterday. There’s never been any justification for what’s been going on. You cannot justify attacking civilians who are exercising their right to democratic protest. You just can’t send in the tanks and attack them like that. We have condemned it in the strongest possible terms.

AMY GOODMAN: To find out more, we’re going to Paris right now to be joined by Ziad Majed, Lebanon and Syria researcher, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at the American University of Paris, also coordinator of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy, and writes regularly in Arabic and French press.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! What is happening in Syria right now?

ZIAD MAJED: In Syria, what’s happening right now is a popular, peaceful revolution that is being brutally repressed by the regime of Damascus, a regime that is in place since 1963, since the Ba’ath coup d’état in the country, when it imposed also the emergency law. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad took over in another coup d’état within the Ba’ath Party. And then, in 2000, for the first time in the history of republics, he gave the presidency to his son, Bashar, who has been in place for 11 years now.

The mentality of the Syrian regime, the structure of its security forces, is only interested and obsessed by security measures and by repressing any political protest, which means there is no political room for negotiations or for reforms, as the regime is pretending. For the last few months now, there have been 2,000 people killed—among them, many women, children, and of course lots of men—and there have been more than 10,000 people arrested, 10,000 people refugees, lots of people who disappeared, who were probably kidnapped, sometimes unfortunately killed. So there is a brutality, and there is, at the same time, a world silence, or at least condemnations that are not to the level of the challenges that are posed in Syria, whether in relation to human rights, to international law, or even to the minimum of ethics that should prevail in this world.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening in Hama? Begin by talking about the significance of this city decades ago, with President Assad’s father.

ZIAD MAJED: In 1982, there was an uprising in Hama, a popular one, but also the Muslim Brotherhood participated actively to it. And then the Syrian regime response was a brutal destruction of the old part of the city with heavy bombardment and with a massacre against the civil population that led to the death of more than 20,000 people in few days. In addition to that, there were, during the ’80s, a wave of terrors, assassinations, arrests, death squads killing and targeting people. The toll was close to 40,000 people killed. So Hama symbolically is a place of sadness, of terrible memory.

And at the time, it was the brother of the president who was in charge, by his brother, by the president, to commit that massacre. Today, history is repeating itself in a miserable way, while also Bashar al-Assad is asking his brother, who is the commander of the Fourth Division, is also carrying on this massacre. So there is a parallelism in violence and repression.

But at the same time, this time, there are peaceful demonstrations. We have seen hundreds of thousands of people coming to the streets each Friday with no single act of violence, regardless of all the regime propaganda about armed groups, about Salafists, about conspiracies. And suddenly, the regime decided to punish the city once again, to have a revenge against all these people who went out. And in the last few days, tens of people were killed, heavy bombardment. And once again, in ’82 and today, the international community is either silent or waiting maybe for more blood to react, which I think is very sad.

And just allow me also to give one example of a terrible event that happened in Hama a few weeks ago. In Hama, there was a singer, a popular one, who was leading the demonstrations and using his sense of humor, the beautiful Syrian sense of humor, to make fun of the dictator, of his crimes, of his regime. This singer was kidnapped, was killed, and his throat was taken away, in a symbol, also again, of the terrible revenge against any freedom aspiration or even against a basic right of freedom of expression.

AMY GOODMAN: Ziad Majed, could you talk about the significance of this being the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan?

ZIAD MAJED: In Ramadan, usually, the month is called a month of haram, which is a month where people should be in their mode of life pious, respectful of many codes, etc. But more importantly, and regardless of the religious aspect, for those who believe in it, the month of Ramadan is supposed to be the month of a huge mobilization. The Syrian activists were preparing each night to go to the streets, to transform each day of the week to a Friday, so that they will accelerate their revolution and their journey towards freedom and towards the full destruction of the wall of fears that the dictators built in Syria. So I think the Syrian regime wanted to send a very strong signal before Ramadan, by making this massacre, to prevent these kind of mobilizations.

And I know also from friends in Syria that there are snipers of the roof—on the roofs of many buildings in many cities, in order also to kill people and to make any presence in the street extremely difficult and very dangerous. Regardless of that, we have seen yesterday tens of demonstrations in tens of places. People that were in the streets were still saying that they will support Hama and Deir ez-Zor, another martyr city these days, that they will keep their peaceful response to the brutality of the tanks and of the heavy gunfire of Assad’s regime.

AMY GOODMAN: The pictures that are getting out—again, no foreign journalists allowed in Syria—are remarkable, the mass demonstrations in cities like Hama right now. And I’m looking at The Guardian newspaper blog, The Guardian of Britain, and it says, “11:12am: Protesters say they have been taking the sim cards of those shot dead so that they can talk to each other and media without being tracked, Nour Ali (a pseudonym) reports. All phone numbers are registered to the person when they buy it and several of those who have been detained say they have been tracked by their phone number for talking to al-Jazeera or other media. ’There’s ever more sim cards available right now, unfortunately,’ says one activist in Damascus.” Ziad Majed, comment on this.

ZIAD MAJED: Yeah, this is absolutely true. I heard it also from lots of people who are still active on the net or on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and are trying to bring the reality of what’s happening in Syria, because—let’s remember that there are no international nor even Arab press present in Syria to cover what’s happening—it’s the citizens themselves who are becoming not only activists and militants for democracy, but also reporters who are bringing to us the atrocities of what’s happening, from one side, and the exceptional courage of the Syrian people, from the other.

Let me add to what was said in The Guardian, as well, that in many cases, many of the people who were arrested were tortured in order to take their passwords of their accounts, whether they have it on their email passwords or their Facebook passwords or Twitter or YouTube, etc., in order not only to hack the account, but also to have traps made to their friends, by contacting them, by giving them appointments. So, the imagination of the dictator, even if it’s monotonous and it’s always about repression and about killing and about dehumanizing the other, is also a fertile one when it comes to getting information and trying to, at any cost, kill the revolution. But so far, all these attempts and all this violence and all this brutality is not—or did not stop the Syrian people from being on the streets and from continuing their revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Ziad Majed, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at the American University of Paris, works on Lebanon and Syria. The role of the international community? We’ve played the clips of the Turkish ambassador. Hillary Clinton has called on the U.N. Security Council to take action. But what does this actually mean? And how significant is it? How does the Assad regime respond to international outcry?

ZIAD MAJED: First, from the Assad regime side, I think the regime counts on two factors. One, what is called now, more and more, “the Libyan trap,” which is the endless conflict in Libya and the fact that Gaddafi is resisting 'til now and there's no regime change, which means that the international community’s priorities are still in Libya and cannot afford to have a second dossier, or a second file, to deal with. So, they are counting on that. They are counting also on Russia and China, who are supporting the Syrian regime and always threatening of using the veto against any strong condemnation or against bringing the Syrian case to the International Court of Justice. And they are also, unfortunately, counting on South Africa, India, Brazil, that are extremely hesitant. And we don’t understand why countries that lived through a very painful past and are now examples of emancipation, of democracy, of freedom, are supportive, or at least are silent, when it comes to such a despotic and brutal regime like the one in Syria. So, this is from the Syrian side.

From the international community side, I think no one is talking about military intervention. And in fact, the Syrian people doesn’t want a military intervention. They want sanctions. They want clear messages. They want to cut sometimes diplomatic relations to sign—to send a very strong signal. And they want international justice. There are courts. There is international law. There are conventions. And there are definitely evidences now and cases of crimes against humanity that should be dealt with properly. So far, everything has been very slow, extremely slow. There are geostrategic interests and calculations sometimes related to the borders with Israel, related to the borders with Iraq and with Lebanon, that are keeping the international community from getting more into Syria by saying that we don’t want new destabilization. However, this is an illusion. The destabilization is with these kind of regimes that use always regional cards and the sufferings of people in order to maintain their regime and to remain in place. I think the international community should respond much more clearly and strongly. International human rights organizations should also be active. Public opinions in the West, in the countries where democracy is respected, should act more in order to push their governments to make positions.

And let me add something also on the Arab League, not only also to—not only to blame the international community. The Arab League is silent, and this is again a shame. For the new governments who just emerged after great revolutions, whether in Tunisia or in Egypt, there are not enough reactions, or with old governments, other despotic governments in place in the Gulf and in many other places, who are again silent about what’s happening. The secretary general of the Arab League did a very shy and timid discourse yesterday. I think this kind of complicity is encouraging the Syrian regime. However, and once again, the public opinion in the Arab world is more and more now mobilized and sympathetic with what’s happening in Syria, and we all count on the courage of the Syrian [people]. But I think, again, it’s really a shame to leave the Syrian people alone fighting or—fighting, of course, peacefully [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Ziad Majed, we have just gotten someone on the phone within Syria, and it’s very difficult to do this, so we want to go right to Razan Zaitouneh, who is the lawyer, a human rights activist in Damascus, who’s been reporting on the recent protests for various online networks.

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Next story from this daily show

Syrian Activist Razan Zaitouneh: Assad Regime the Lone “Terrorist Group” Inside Syria

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