Photo by MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
UPDATE: Two Iranian warships docked at a Syrian naval base over the weekend, according to Iran state media. The ships are supposed to be providing training under a year-old agreement between the two allies but everyone interprets it as a clear show of force.
“The sending of these warships will have two meanings,” one analyst tells Al Jazeera. “The first one is that ‘yes, we are powerful and we can close the Strait of Hormuz if you impose sanctions on us.’ And secondly, ‘we stand with our ally.’” The move could also be seen as a warning to Western states that the Syrian crisis could quickly turn into a regional conflict, notes Reuters.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis continues to grow and the Red Cross is trying to negotiate a cease-fire between Syrian officials and the opposition so it can deliver food and medical supplies, particularly to the city of Homs, an opposition stronghold. CNN’s Arwa Damon has filed dispatches from Homs showing how it looks like a ghost town as fearful residents pack into makeshift bunkers without electricity.
Following protests in the capital of Damascus over the weekend, many parts of the city have turned “into a besieged and closed-in zone,” writes Haaretz, citing reports by activists. In the western city of Hama, soldiers have isolated neighborhoods as residents are apparently cut off from the outside world without phone networks and Internet access, reports Reuters.
Meanwhile, China’s Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily published a front-page commentary Monday that said Western countries were pushing Syria into a civil war. “If Western countries continue to fully support Syria's opposition, then in the end a large-scale civil war will erupt and there will be no way to thus avoid the possibility of foreign armed intervention,” said the paper.
In the United States, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff dismissed calls for the United States to arm Syria’s opposition. “I think it's premature to take a decision … because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point,” Dempsey told CNN. Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham expressed support Sunday for arming President Bashar al-Assad’s opponent, reports the New York Times.
Sunday, Feb. 19: Police and militia patrols made their presence felt across Damascus Sunday, particularly in the Mezze district, where huge crowds of protesters had gathered the two previous days. Security forces were out in full force at the funeral for the young protester who was killed Saturday, in what looked like a clear attempt to prevent his burial from turning into yet another anti-government protest, reports Reuters.
So far, Damascus has been relatively quiet compared to other areas of Syria that have been engulfed by conflict. “The spillover of violence, which in other Syrian cities has consistently catalyzed larger protests, risks rattling President Bashar al-Assad's large support base in the capital,” writes the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, the state news agency reported that gunmen killed a senior state prosecutor and a judge Sunday on a road in the northwest province of Idlib. The killing seems to be yet another sign that anti-government factions are getting bolder and are embracing violence, notes the Associated Press.
Saturday, Feb. 18: Syrian security forces fired live ammunition at a funeral procession in Damascus that quickly turned into one of the biggest demonstrations in the capital since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began 11 months ago, reports the Associated Press. Earlier, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun had met with Assad and called for an end to the violence from both sides.
The shooting that killed at least one person took place during a funeral for three people killed on Friday during a protest against the regime. Reuters says that “up to 30,000 demonstrators” took to the streets while the AP hears from an activist that the funeral procession had around 15,000 people. Approximately 60 people were arrested, according to Al Jazeera.
The demonstration took place shortly after Zhai met with Assad and expressed the Chinese government’s support for Assad’s plan to hold a referendum on Feb. 26. Speaking to journalists after the meeting, Zhai called on all sides to stop the violence. Assad later characterized the protests as an effort to divide the country “and affect its geopolitical place and historic role in the region.”
Meanwhile, Reuters hears word that government forces have resumed their shelling of Homs, an opposition stronghold. The BBC notes that Amnesty International says it has obtained new evidence that Syrian troops are using torture against opponents of the regime, including reports of beatings and rapes. Human rights groups say around 7,000 people have died in Syria since March of last year.