BEIRUT: Friday demonstrations in Syria were staged to denounce the launch of airstrikes against Al-Qaeda-linked groups, as anger builds over this week’s aerial intervention by the international community in the conflict three and a half years after it began.
Protesters in towns and villages in Idlib, Aleppo, Homs and Deraa provinces, the opposition strongholds where weekly demonstrations continue to be held, marched in support of the slogan “civilians don’t need international killers.”
They expressed their outrage over several different repercussions of the U.S.-led airstrikes, which have targeted the widely despised ISIS and a few other Al-Qaeda-linked groups – while no action is taken against what the opposition sees as the reason for the rise of ISIS, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page, which selects the weekly slogan, maintains that 24 civilians, among them five children and five women, have been killed so far in the strikes, which have targeted Idlib and Aleppo provinces, as well as Deir al-Zor, Raqqa and Hassakeh provinces in the east.
The Pentagon has yet to confirm any civilian deaths, although several anti-regime activist networks have produced similar casualty figures.
The anger and outrage aren’t surprising, judging by the slogans of past Friday demonstrations which demanded a different kind of international intervention.
Back on Oct. 28, 2011, protesters demanded a no-fly zone to neutralize the regime’s air superiority.
On Dec. 12 of that year, they demanded a buffer zone, to protect civilians fleeing from the carnage.
On Aug. 10, 2012, protesters demanded that the rebels be allowed to obtain anti-aircraft weapons, in reaction to the informal ban that the U.S. and its allies have vigorously enforced throughout the conflict.
Several Friday demonstrations have been held to denounce the actions of ISIS, which has committed atrocities against Syrian rebel groups and civilians for over a year, mainly in northern and eastern parts of the country.
Observers and anti-regime activists have feared that the assembling of an international coalition to strike at ISIS will also mobilize the group’s supporters around the world – after Syrian militias were already fighting back against ISIS, largely ignored by leading powers and international public opinion.
A protester in Idlib held a placard addressing ISIS: “The coalition’s bombing you doesn’t mean that you’re right.”
Another sign from Idlib read: “We used to dream of Arab planes taking action – [now] we wish they hadn’t.”
Many supporters of the uprising are also incensed that the U.S.-led airstrikes have targeted the Nusra Front and claim they have extended, or will likely extend, to conservative Islamist militias such as Ahrar al-Sham and others.
While the hard-liners aren’t necessarily widely popular, supporters of the uprising are angry that these other groups are being lumped together with ISIS although they – unlike the notorious Al-Qaeda splinter group – have devoted much of their energy to battling regime forces.
Other protesters lambasted the vague notions of “Islamist extremism” that are being mouthed by politicians and officials these days.
In a village in Deraa, a protester held a sign questioning “if you believe Islamic groups are responsible for terror ... what about Hezbollah?”
Protesters elsewhere criticized the international community’s failure to act against other foreign fighters – from Iran and Iraq, most prominently – who have fought alongside the regime.
The reported deaths of a dozen civilians in this week’s airstrikes might constitute a tiny portion of the overall death toll in the uprising, widely believed to be at least 200,000 people, but its supporters believe that the numbers will only rise as the campaign does nothing to end to the hostilities.
As they said in last week’s demonstrations, on the eve of the airstrikes, “An End to Assad is an End to ISIS.”