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Wednesday, August 24, 2011     INTELLIGENCE BRIEFING

Report: Assad regime's new policy distinguishes between peaceful and violent protests

LONDON — The regime of President Bashar Assad has begun to allow peaceful protests, a report said.


The International Crisis Group asserted that the Assad regime has been quietly permitting protests against the government throughout Syria. ICG, based in Brussels, said the decision marked a directive by the president to reduce civilian casualties by the security forces, Middle East Newsline reported.

"The regime is showing more restraint in dealing with the protest movement," ICG said in a report. "Many demonstrations now go unhindered every weekend."

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The report, released on July 13, said the main protest day was Friday after mosque prayers. Nearly 100 protests were said to take place every Friday, with the lion's share proceeding without incident.

"Many demonstrations now go unhindered every weekend," the report, titled "The Syrian Regime's Slow-motion Suicide," said. "On any given Friday, there are 80 demonstrations that go well and two where everything goes wrong. It looks like they shoot when shot at, when provocations occur or when party buildings are destroyed."

Western diplomats in Damascus have confirmed the report. They said Assad has quietly shifted his initial policy of crushing demonstrations to one that distinguishes between peaceful and violent protest.

About 2,200 civilians have been killed by the Assad regime since the revolt began in March 2011. The regime, blaming foreign-backed Islamic insurgents, has claimed about 500 casualties among army and security forces.

A senior Syrian official was quoted as acknowledging the new policy to permit protests although authorities continued to deploy huge forces. The unnamed official said security forces have orders not to shoot unless they are clearly threatened.

"Part of the explanation is a measure of on-the-ground learning by the security services, which initially didn't have a clue about how to deal with such protests," the official was quoted as saying. "Besides, they now have clear orders not to shoot other than in legitimate self-defense."

Not all diplomats agreed that Assad changed his zero-tolerance policy toward protests. Some of the diplomats, pointing to the assault on Hama, Homs and Latakia, assessed that the reduction in casualties in ratio to demonstrations stemmed from the increasing strain on the military and security forces.

"I see no particular improvement on the part of the security services," a Western diplomat in Damascus said. "They are increasingly overstretched and, insofar as they are more focused on specific areas, tend to be laxer elsewhere."

A leading U.S. analyst on Syria said Assad's security forces have reduced casualties through the use of snipers and enhanced reconnaissance. Gary Gambill, editor of the Middle East Forum, said Assad's forces was targeting suspected organizers and those who film protests with their cellphones.

"Regime snipers carefully selected their targets on the basis of specific criteria — filming demonstrations with cell phones, using megaphones, carrying banners — designed to incapacitate mid-level organizers," Gambill said.

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