BEIRUT: On Friday the Syrian troops opened fire on protesters demonstrating after prayers on Friday, killing at least 27, as President Bashar al-Assad’s government shrugged off mounting U.S. pressure to ease its military crackdown and implement reforms.
The shootings came a day after President Obama delivered his first warning to Assad that he should begin putting reforms in place or “get out of the way.”
At least 23 people were reported killed in several different locations, activists said, but with the protests continuing, the toll could rise. Troops opened fire on demonstrations in the protest flash points of Homs, Hama, Baniyas and Damascus, as tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets in towns across the country.
The continuing assaults, despite the sharper admonition from Obama, suggest that the United States has little leverage over a Syrian regime known for its determination to maintain a tight grip on authority.
The day’s violence also suggested that the prospect of either reforms or peaceful transitions of power in Syria are slim. Assad appears to be indicating that he is intent only on crushing the protests by force, not on implementing reforms, and the protesters say that so many lives have already been lost that they have reached a point of no return.
Obama’s warning, delivered during a major address on Middle East policy, was the strongest American rebuke yet to the Assad regime, which has used tanks, live ammunition and mass detentions in an effort to crush the Syrian uprising.
On Wednesday, Obama announced sanctions against Assad, in a further sign of growing U.S. concern about the levels of violence being used to suppress the largely peaceful protest movement. Human rights groups say at least 900 people have been killed so far.
Friday marked the 10th consecutive week that protesters have defied the crackdown to take to the streets in what has become an escalating cycle of demonstrations, gunfire and arrests. Syrian troops have besieged and bombarded several of the top protest flashpoints. Yet protesters are still demonstrating in some of those towns.
Last week the government announced that it would begin a “national dialogue” with opposition leaders — an indication that it recognizes that force alone may not be enough to quell the unrest. Hours later, however, tanks were dispatched to crush the rebellion in Tal Kalakh on the Lebanese border.
Groups of oppositions have said they will not negotiate with the government as long as tanks remain in the streets of Syrian cities and unless the thousands of demonstrators detained for joining protests are freed.