• Guardian website reportedly blocked in much of Syria
• Opposition says emails reflect blase attitude to uprising
Syrian activists and opposition figures have reacted with outrage to the email cache revealed by the Guardian, saying that they showed President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling circle were blase about the uprising in their country.
The regime’s brutal attempts to put down the revolution continued on Thursday on the first anniversary of the uprising, which broke out in Deraa.
Demonstrators again took to the streets of the town now hailed as the birthplace of the revolution, despite the presence of a vast number of security personnel who have deployed there in recent days.
The Guardian’s website was also reported to have been blocked in much of Syria on Thursday in an apparent attempt to prevent citizens from reading the Assad emails. Pan-Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya, which has also obtained the leaked emails, reported significant interference with its transmission signal this week.
Large pro-regime rallies were held in Damascus and in Aleppo, Syria’s second city. Opposition activists claimed government workers had been instructed to attend to show support for Assad, who retains a firm hold on power despite the protracted challenge to his authority. The leader appears to have made inroads into flashpoint areas in the rest of the country, especially Homs and Idlib, which were opposition strongholds until they capitulated in the face of military assaults.
Opposition activists believe Deraa will be the next target for the military. Tanks on Thursday remained on the outskirts of the besieged town and clashes were sporadic and confined to areas near demonstration flashpoints. Activists said about 40 people were killed nationwide in clashes on Thursday. The daily death toll in Syria has been at, or higher, than that level for much of the past six months as a series of rolling protests steadily transformed into a blazing insurgency that pitched an almost exclusively rebel army of defectors and armed citizens against a loyalist military, whose leaders are drawn largely from the Assad clan’s Allawi sect.
The insurgency has clearly faltered in recent weeks, with the Free Syria Army withdrawing from its stronghold in the Baba Amr district of Homs as regime troops advanced. The northern city of Idlib, also a rebel bastion, fell earlier this week after a short battle.
There is also growing concern about the faltering diplomatic track, with Syria’s fractured main opposition movement further weakened this week by the resignation of key member, apparently dejected by the government’s recent advances.
A year after the popular protests in Deraa, the Syrian opposition remains unable to provide a viable alternative to the four decades of clan rule in the country and its executive committee remains divided on key strategic issues.
Western and Arab diplomacy has also failed to make inroads, with Russia, China and Iran providing unwavering cover to Assad who faces no credible threat of a Libya-style military move to oust him.
Instead there are increasing western moves to engage elements of the Syrian regime, who fear a future without Assad but are not unconditionally aligned to his regime. “There is the Sunni business elite and others in the regime who are more distant from the family itself,” said a western diplomat this week, explaining that efforts are being mounted to communicate with them. They need to feel that they are not in the same corner as Assad. We are not saying that the entire machine has to be dismantled. That was the great lesson of Iraq: de-Ba’ath-ification was not a great day-after strategy.”
Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy for Syria, is yet to respond in full to a response he received from Damascus on Thursday to his push this week to broker a peace deal. The Syrian response is believed to have conditioned a ceasefire on opposition militias also downing their weapons.
During weekend meetings in Damascus with Assad, Annan said a solution to the crisis lies in “political settlement”.
Opposition activists have repeatedly said they will not negotiate with the regime and will accept nothing less than Assad surrendering power.
• This article has been amended to remove references to a Twitter account purporting to be that of the Syrian president. The account is probably not his.
from Martin Chulov