By Nir Boms and Erick Stakelbeck
For Bashar Assad, the diffusion of last weekend’s anti-government riots in northern Syria represented a dodged bullet, as his Ba’ath Party was ultimately able to maintain its tyrannical grip over the lives of 22 million Syrians.
For Syria’s democratic reformers, however, the unrest may merely have signified the calm before the storm.
As of Tuesday, armed police continued to stand guard on the streets of Qamoshli in northeastern Syria, where the atmosphere remained tense following the largest uprising against the Syrian Ba’ath Party in years.
The riots in northern Syria capped a full week of protests that began with the detainment on March 8 of several pro-democracy advocates, as well as an American diplomat stationed at the U.S. embassy in Damascus. Syrian security officials seized the diplomat while breaking up a pro-democracy march organized by the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights (CDDLHR) in front of the Syrian parliament building.
While Syrian officials issued an apology to the United States for the diplomat’s brief detainment, no admission of guilt appears forthcoming from the Ba’ath Party regarding the events of this past weekend.
Kurdish sources say that between 20 and 50 opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime were killed and 150 more injured by local police and the Syrian army during riots that swept through Qamoshli, Hasakah, Dirik, Amouda and Ras el-Ein, all Kurdish majority cities in northern Syria.
The uprising began last Friday during a soccer match in Qamoshli, a city of 200,000 near Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey. Fans of the visiting Fituwya club – which is based in the city of Dar el-Zur, near the Syrian/Iraqi border – threw stones at supporters of the hometown Al-Jihad team and chanted Ba’athist slogans, such as “Viva Saddam Hussein.” Al-Jihad supporters responded by chanting “Viva Barazani” (in honor of Iraqi KurdishLeaderMassoud Barazani) and “Viva democracy.”
This exchange of angry words eventually led to an all-out brawl between the two sides in which three young children were trampled to death inside the stadium.
The riots eventually spread from the stadium to the Qamoshli streets, where Syrian police reportedly killed at least 15 Kurds. A group of Kurds responded by taking over a government building, only to relinquish it when Syrian army troops and helicopters arrived.
The uprising soon spread from Qamoshli to the nearby city of Amuda, where protestors destroyed statues and murals of Mr. Assad.
The unrest also touched the Syrian capital of Damascus, albeit on a smaller scale, as a number of impromptu pro-democracy demonstrations were held by protestors as a show of solidarity with the rioters. In response, riot officers were stationed around Damascus University and in a predominantly Kurdish suburb nearby. Additionally, the Kurdish quarters of Damascus, Aleppo and Haleb, were subjected to a curfew.
The behavior of Syrian riot police led U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli to urge Syria “to refrain from using increasingly repressive measures to ostracize a minority that has asked for a greater acceptance and integration into Syrian life.”
But events only escalated on Monday, as Syria sealed off its borders with Iraq after Iraqi Kurdish fighters threatened to enter the country if the violent clashes between Syrian security forces and Syrian Kurds were not brought to an end.
Also on Monday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that an American team had landed in northern Syria to help ease tensions and that Mr. Assad had dispatched his brother, Colonel Maher Assad, along with his defense minister, Mustafa Tlass, to the city of Qamoshli to negotiate with the leaders of the revolt.
Reverberations from the uprising were also felt in Europe, where 60 Kurds stormed the Syrian Embassy in Brussels on Saturday to protest the Ba’ath Party’s brutal crackdown on the rioters. On Monday, another 60 Kurds took over the Syrian consulate in Geneva, in what they said was an attempt to draw attention to “the massacre of Kurdish civilians being carried out by Syrian army and police forces.”
The measures used by Europe’s Kurds have only drawn more attention to the Syrian Ba’ath Party’s ongoing human rights abuses at a time when Mr. Assad is looking to strengthen Syria’s ties with the European Union.
For the Kurds, like for many Syrians, the horrific sights and sounds that accompanied the riots in northern Syria were all too familiar. In 1982, Hafez Assad – the deceased father of Bashar – responded with overwhelming force to an uprising by the radical Muslim Brotherhood group in the central Syrian city of Hama.
Using special forces units, helicopters, tanks and heavy artillery, the Syrian army massacred anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 men, women and children in its efforts to root out Muslim Brotherhood influence.
Reached by cellular phone on Sunday, a Kurdish activist who was present during the Qamoshli riots of this past weekend drew a parallel to the carnage of Hama. “I don’t know what will come next,” he said. “I am afraid that no one will come to our aid. If there is no pressure from the outside, this will be a prelude to another massacre just like in 1982.”
Nir Boms is a fellow at the Council of Democracy and Tolerance and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Erick Stakelbeck is head writer for the Washington-based Investigative Project.