Syrian Troops Kill 40 Over Weekend as Protesters Call on Bashar Assad to Quit

Syrian president sends an infantry unit to the city of Deraa, ordering troops to take over the town and disperse protests with live fire.

Syrian security forces killed around 40 people over the weekend as President Bashar Assad clamped down on the protests against his regime. The demonstrators are no longer demanding constitutional amendments and reforms but rather Assad's abdication and the dismantling of his regime.

The Syrian president sent an infantry unit to the city of Deraa in the south, ordering troops to take over the town and disperse the protests with live fire. Human rights organizations reported that around 40 people were killed on Friday and Saturday, while Syria insisted that "armed gangs" had opened fire and killed 19 soldiers.

Daraa, Syria protest - AP - 8.4.11

To bolster its claim, the Syrian regime released video clips yesterday showing unidentified gunmen shooting from a civilian vehicle. Although the regime says footage proves the "gang" narrative, it is unclear who the shooters are and what they are firing at.

Activists reported on Facebook that security forces threw weapons onto the street, hoping that protesters would arm themselves and become legitimate targets for live fire. Only three days ago, the Syrian Interior Ministry predicted that Assad's speech last week and vague promises of reform would halt the demonstrations. But yesterday it said that no further riots would be tolerated "under the pretext of protests and demand for reforms."

Forecasts that Assad's decision to give citizenship to 100,000 of the country's Kurds would slow down the protests also proved unfounded.

Assad, who has put the army in charge of suppressing the protests, can still take heart from the reserved response of the United States and European Union. Neither has gone beyond condemning the violence against the protesters while warning the demonstrators against using violence.

In contrast to the international community's stance on the leaders of Libya and Yemen, the West has made no significant calls to remove Assad, who is seen as a stabilizing force in Syria and Lebanon.

In Egypt, meanwhile, activists renewed calls to hasten the transition from military to civilian rule. They also want former President Hosni Mubarak and his family to be put on trial, and, amid the escalation on the Gaza front, to have the Israeli ambassador expelled.

The weekend has seen the first protest against Israeli attacks in the Strip; 2,000 people demonstrated at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and demanded the severance of diplomatic ties. Such protests were banned under Mubarak, but it seems the transitional government of the military council does not intend to stop demonstrators from voicing their anger at Israeli policies.

The military, however, appears to have decided to clamp down on pro-democracy protests on Cairo's Tahrir Square and in other cities. On Friday, soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing two of them, while many more were beaten after the army said they had violated the nighttime curfew.

Yesterday, activists voiced fears of a rift between the protesters and the military; some called for the resignation of the council's chief, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.