In Syrian Towns Rebels Control, Demonstrators Sometimes Target Them

By David Enders – McClatchy Newspapers – 1.12.2012 – QALAT AL MUDIQ, Syria — Wael Nasrallah has organized more than 100 demonstrations in the past 20 months. On Friday, he led another one in Qalat al Mudiq, a city of about 30,000 in central Syria.

Even with civil war engulfing the country, the peaceful demonstrations that kicked off the rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad so long ago continue, at least in this part of Syria. Often, the target is no longer the Assad regime but the rebels who now rule in many areas.

“It is still necessary because we have demands,” said the 35-year-old Nasrallah, who’s a truck driver by trade. “Today we mentioned two things: We want the revolutionaries to organize electricity service and to organize the distribution of bread.” In other parts of the country, demonstrators also have called on the rebels to provide security, something Nasrallah and others say isn’t an issue here, and for the international community to provide weapons to the rebels. In a country where people were generally terrified to speak freely before the rebellion began, the demonstrations are an important advance, activists say, and one people are loath to lose. People now can discuss what the future holds and generally appear unafraid to criticize the rebels themselves. The rebellion has empowered conservative Islamist groups who’ve done much of the frontline fighting and call openly for a state based on Islamic law, but the demonstration here Friday encompassed a wide range of the opposition’s members, from the conservative to the secular.

Qalat al Mudiq exists in an odd sort of stasis — for months, rebels have controlled the city while the army maintains a base in an ancient citadel that overlooks the city. A cease-fire of sorts prevails, though residents said the army had shelled a demonstration last month and shot at another two days ago.

Qalat al Mudiq is also surrounded by cities and towns that remain loyal to the government, including the majority Christian city of Saqlabiyeh to the south. Despite army checkpoints on the road, people from Saqlabiyeh attended the demonstration here, an echo of the first demonstrations against the government, which consciously highlighted unity between the country’s sects and ethnicities.

“I came here to demonstrate because there are no demonstrations in my city,” said Ibrahim Nader, an English teacher from Saqlabiyeh.

Nasrallah said the demonstrations are important to transmit the demands of Syrians to the newly formed coalition of Syrian opposition figures that increasingly is being recognized by the international community as representatives of the rebellion and a potential beginning for a transitional government should Assad be deposed. That moment has begun to appear closer as the Syrian government on Thursday and Friday shut down Internet service across the entire country for the first time since the beginning of the rebellion. The shutdown occurred amid heavy clashes in Damascus that closed the airport there.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Friday that Syrian troops had withdrawn entirely from the Sheikh Omar oilfield, the largest in Deir al Zour province in the country’s southeast. Rebels there have been making steady gains this month, as well as taking over a number of military bases across the country and capturing heavy weapons, including tanks and anti-aircraft rockets that were used this week to shoot down a government helicopter and a jet.

“The regime’s offensive capacity is much reduced, and its defensive capacity is also declining now,” said Jeff White, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I do not see any way for it to recover, short of massive external intervention — Iran or a desperate resort to chemical weapons, and even those measures would not likely be decisive.”