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Violence erupted in three Syrian cities over the weekend as President Bashar Assad continues his efforts to put down incipient revolts against his 11 year rule. But while protests against the regime appeared to be spreading, the government mounted a number of massive demonstrations in support of the dictator in Damascus, as well as Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo.
Most troubling for Assad is the specter of sectarian violence in the city of Homs that raised its head for the first time in the revolt, and the defection of a significant military force in the Iraqi border town of Abu Kamal. This may be a signal that the conscripts that have been ordered to shoot down civilians in the streets are weakening in their allegiance to the regime despite brutal methods to keep them in line.
And in another sign that the rebellion isn’t going to be put down easily, Syrian activists met in Istanbul over the weekend and formed a 25-man “National Salvation Council” made up of all segments of the opposition to challenge President Assad’s hold on the country.
More than 350 activists, many of them Syrian exiles, established the Council with the goal of “reaching out towards other opposition groups to lead the country towards the democratic vision we have, according to spokesman Haitham al-Maler. Made up of liberals, independents, and Islamists, the opposition debated whether to form a “government in waiting” or await the outcome of events in Syria. The day-long meeting, according to Reuters, was fractious at times. The Council was a compromise solution and further meetings were scheduled to attempt to bring groups operating within Syria into the organized opposition. The Syrian army broke up preparations for the meeting of opposition figures in Damascus who were planning to connect electronically to the Istanbul conference, but a smaller group, meeting in a private residence, was able to link up to the activists in Turkey via internet phone.
If events over the weekend are any indication, they will have little problem in finding allies inside Syria. In the city of Zabadani on the Lebanese border, government forces rumbled into town in the pre-dawn hours and immediately set about the task of establishing check points and rounding up residents indiscriminately. Soldiers also went door to door in their sweep, hauling people away. Al Jazeera is reporting that at least 500 residents were arrested in Zanadani over the weekend.
The military was responding to the large protest that occurred on Friday where thousands of residents turned out to demonstrate against Assad’s rule. Human rights monitors and local citizens reported that electricity and phone service had been cut to the city and that residents were fearful of going outside, afraid of getting caught in the round up.
The situation was even more explosive in the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal. Troops were sent in on Friday to quell anti-government protests, but according to reports by both residents and activists, 200 of them, along with their tanks, defected to the side of the opposition. While the report could not be independently confirmed, activists posted video that appeared to show local residents welcoming tanks in the streets.
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