Confusion reigns in Syria as forces appear to withdraw

Government has varied responses to demonstrators

By Anthony Shadid
New York Times / July 6, 2011

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BEIRUT - Fired up with zeal, activists say they have set up dozens of checkpoints in the Syrian city of Hama, alerting neighborhood groups with cries of “God is great’’ to the approach of feared security forces and throwing up barricades of burning tires and trash bins to block their path.

Hama, the scene of the largest protests yet, has emerged as a potent challenge to President Bashar Assad. In just days, the protests and the government’s uncertain response have underlined the potential scale of dissent in Syria, the government’s lack of a strategy in ending it, and the difficulty Assad faces in dismissing the demonstrations as religiously inspired unrest with foreign support.

Hama is still a far cry from the liberated territory that the most fervent there have declared it. But a government decision last month to withdraw forces has ceded the streets to protesters.

Residents interviewed by telephone said they had begun working collectively in acts as small as cleaning a downtown square and as large as organizing the defense of some neighborhoods.

More critically, the scenes of enormous, peaceful rallies there Friday have served as a persuasive critique of the government’s version of events, which had won over large segments of Syrian society. Throughout the nearly four-month uprising, the government has pointed to the deaths of hundreds of its forces to argue that the unrest is the product of violent Islamist radicals with support from abroad.

Hama was peaceful for weeks, but Monday, security forces returned to its outskirts, carrying out arrests. Those forces killed at least 11 yesterday in yet more raids, activists said. Each foray has run up against opposition wielding what one activist called a medieval arsenal: stones, sand berms, and, in his unconfirmed account, bows and arrows.

“There’s no easy solution to Hama,’’ Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said in an interview.

“The regime made significant progress in terms of convincing people in Syria and abroad that there was an armed component to this protest movement and that its security forces were very much focused on that component,’’ he added. “Hardly two weeks later, the regime gets embroiled in the exact opposite, once again undermining its own case.’’

Since the uprising erupted in mid-March, the government has wavered between harsh crackdown and tentative reform. Hama has emerged as a microcosm of this shifting strategy.

Neighboorhood-watch groups there said they had learned the lesson of Daraa, where government forces had withdrawn only to return in force, retaking control.

“If we sit in our houses and wait for the solders and security men, they’ll do whatever they want with us,’’ said a government employee named Ameen, 40. top stories on Twitter

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