One million protestors – almost 5% of the entire population – took to the streets of Syria today in a mass demonstration of opposition to ruling Baath party regime headed by Bashar al-Assad.
Demonstrations took place across the country, but the largest gatherings were seen in the northern city of Hom, a centre of opposition to the regime. It is reported that at least five civilians were killed when tanks were called in to quell the protests in the city.
In nearby Hama, where in 1982 there was a massacre of thousands of opposition supporters during the rule of Assad’s father Hafez, it was reported that hundreds of thousands came out to demonstrate in the city’s central square.
For the first time, Syria’s Kurdish minority played an active role in the protests. Syria is home to an estimated 2 million Kurds, just under 10% of the population. On Friday evening reports came out of dozens of people being wounded when police and militia used batons and tear gas against protesters in the northeastern city of Qamishli, the centre of Syria’s Kurdish community.
Syria is a patchwork of religious and ethnic groups and sectarian and cultural divisions make the political divisions within the country even more sensitive. The Arabic speaking Muslim majority is divided into a Sunni majority with a large minority who are Alawite. The Alawite community was traditionally discriminated against by the Sunni majority, but the power balance in the country shifted in their favour when the Baath party seized control. The Alawite community are strong supporters of the Baath party. President Assad is himself a member of the Alawite community. It is claimed that an officially backed Alawite armed militia are behind many of the shootings of unarmed protestors in the country in recent weeks.
There is also a substantial Druze minority, especially in the south. Another 10% of Arabic speakers are Christians. The Kurdish community is the largest non-Arab minority in Syria. There are also large communities of Syrian Turks, as well as a substantial population of Assyrian speaking Christians and smaller Armenian and Circassian populations.