Middle East

Geneva, torture dominate Friday protests

Hundreds of people gather in the Damascus suburb of Saqba for the weekly demonstration.

BEIRUT: As diplomats in Geneva wrestled with how to bring government and opposition delegations together for face-to-face talks, Friday’s nationwide anti-regime demonstrations in Syria were held under the slogan “11,000 war crimes.”

The slogan was chosen to mark this week’s publication of thousands of photos, purportedly provided by a regime defector, showing the grisly remains of regime-held detainees who were allegedly tortured to death.

Participants in the street gatherings also commented on the talks underway in Geneva, holding signs that mostly denounced the statements made by regime officials, or dismissed the entire event as meaningless.

Protesters also expressed outrage over dire humanitarian conditions in a number of besieged, rebel-held areas around the country, but also clapped, danced and chanted during the gatherings, recalling the heady days of the civilian uprising in its early months of 2011.

Demonstrations were staged throughout Syria, from villages and towns in the southern province of Deraa to the northern areas of Aleppo and Idlib, and Deir al-Zor in the east.

In the Damascus suburb of Saqba, hundreds of people gathered to clap and sing anti-regime songs, while in the Homs town of Talbiseh, a man held a sign reading “Geneva II is stealing the spotlight, as the Assad killing machine is stealing people’s lives.”

Idlib province is famous for the town of Kafranbel, the epicenter of civilian protests and anti-regime sloganeering, but people in several other areas in the province turned out for the weekly protests.

In the Idlib village of Killi, the ambivalence over the Geneva talks was evident in protest signs – one read “Geneva I plus Geneva II equals Geneva III,” while another read “Yes to Geneva – if it achieves the people’s demands.”

One young protester held a sign saluting the “free journalist” Haifa Bouzo, who was involved in a brief altercation with supporters of the regime earlier this week in the Swiss city of Montreux, where the opening Geneva II session was held.

In the city of Aleppo, a youngster held a sign that commented on the regime’s argument that presidential elections should take place this year, without foreign interference.

“To those asking for a referendum of the Syrian people: Ten million displaced [Syrians] is the clearest type of referendum, you idiots,” the sign read.

In the Deir al-Zor town of Quriyeh, the protesters chanted in support of the rebel Free Syrian Army and denounced Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists.

And one day after Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged rebels and jihadists to end several weeks of clashes that are believed to have killed at least 1,500 people, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) showed no signs of easing its hard-line rule.

A wide array of rebel groups throughout half a dozen Syrian provinces have been battling militants from ISIS since Jan. 3, angered by the Al-Qaeda group’s alleged human rights violations against, civilians, anti-government activists, and rebel fighters.

The Observatory said that after several days of clashes, ISIS militants seized control of the town of Darkoush in Idlib province, one day after cementing their control over the rural Aleppo town of Manbij.

In the jihadist-held city of Raqqa on the Euphrates, Al-Qaeda militants publicly beheaded two young men for “cursing the Prophet Mohammad.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the execution took place in the city’s Naim Square, adding that ISIS militants carried out a campaign of arrests in two villages in Raqqa province.

The Observatory said that ISIS militants in Raqqa had begun enforcing one of the group’s four recent decisions, on compulsory prayer, and would shortly put into effect other orders, such as ultra-conservative clothing for women.

Separately, a suspected Al-Qaeda insurgent who is on Saudi Arabia’s wanted list of 47 militants abroad, has been killed in Syria, the SITE monitoring group said.

Saudi national Abdullah Suleiman Salih al-Dhabah, known as Abu Ali al-Qasimi, waged jihad in Pakistan and Afghanistan before going to Syria, where he was killed in the city of Al-Bab in Aleppo by a rocket from a regime aircraft, SITE said, citing online messages posted by Islamists last week.

Riyadh broadly backs the rebels battling President Bashar Assad. But with the rise of Islamist militant factions in Syria, it is concerned that Saudis who joined the rebellion might one day return to wage an insurgency at home.

Dhabah was No. 11 on a wanted list of 47 suspects posted on the Interior Ministry website. In 2011, Riyadh issued global arrest warrants for militants it accused of trying to build cells inside the country and said were hiding in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq.

In Aleppo, regime helicopters dropped “dozens” of barrel bombs on rebel-held neighborhoods, the Observatory said, reporting an unspecified number of injuries, but no fatalities, in the attacks. Barrel bombs were also dropped on the town of Khan al-Shih, outside Damascus.

The Observatory put Thursday’s death toll from the fighting around the country at 190 people, 135 of whom were fighters from the government, rebel and jihadist forces.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 25, 2014, on page 10.




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