Despite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's claims earlier this year that Syria is insulated from the upheaval sweeping the Middle East because his government closely reflects the beliefs and interests of the Syrian people, anti-government protests broke out recently in four Syrian cities, the largest in the southern city of Daraa.
Protesters chanting "God, Syria, and freedom," were met with brutal force by government authorities. At least six people were killed and scores injured in clashes that took place in Daraa on March 18th and 19th. In the days following, anti-government protests have continued, and there are reports that dozens more demonstrators have since been killed by Syrian security forces.
In addition to using violence against demonstrators, the Syrian government has recently arrested scores of people, including prominent Syrian human rights defender, Loay Hussein. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Mr. Hussein, who was a political prisoner from 1984 to 1991, was seized at his home near Damascus, and his whereabouts are currently unknown.
In a speech marking Nowruz, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the protesters in Tunis, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain who have demanded change in their authoritarian governments. The hypocrisy of Ayatollah Khamenei's remarks, given his own government's brutal attacks on peaceful Iranian protesters, is flagrant. So is his omission of praise for the protesters demanding freedom and change in another country in the Middle East – Syria - Iran's client and ally.
In a statement, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor strongly condemned the use of violence by government authorities in Syria and called on the Syrian government to allow demonstrations to take place peacefully.
At a press briefing, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, "The U.S. is alarmed by the Syrian government's use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights. We condemn these actions," he said, "and extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who've been injured or lost their lives. We call on the Syrian government to exercise restraint and refrain from violence against these peaceful protesters."