Assad regime hold on Syria more tenuous as thousands take part in general strike

The Syrian government’s increasingly tenuous hold on power weakened further as rebels struck military targets across the country and thousands of businesses shut down in response to an opposition-called general strike.

By Ruth Sherlock, Beirut
6:17PM GMT 11 Dec 2011

Video footage from Dera’a, the southern city where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad first erupted in March, showed row after row of shuttered shops.

Defying the threat of reprisals, even traders in the capital Damascus, the regime’s principal stronghold, observed the strike, prompting opposition activists to declare that their call for industrial action had been a triumph of unexpected proportions.

“It is amazing so far,” said Omar al Khani of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a nationwide group that organises protests, speaking from Damascus.

“We didn’t expect it would be this big. Even some of the street markets in central Damascus are closed.”

Infuriated by so widespread a display of impudence, Syrian soldiers and pro-regime “Shabiha” militiamen demonstrated their impotent rage by firing their guns into the air, banging angrily on the shop shutters and forcefully prizing them open – to no avail.

“In one street they forced the owners to reopen their shops,” an activist in Deraa said. “The men opened them briefly and closed them again as soon as soon as the Shabiha left.”

With the government already facing severe financial strictures as a result of international sanctions, sustained industrial action could prove highly effective at weakening the regime, observers say. The support of Syria’s Sunni merchant class has proved a vital mainstay for Mr Assad but there is growing evidence that it is wavering as the economy deteriorates.

As importantly, the strike also served as a show of unity for Syria’s fractured opposition, which has been subject to criticism for its perceived failure to coordinate action at a nationwide level.

Protest coordinators said they would call for more strikes in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, army defectors launched a series of assaults, setting military vehicles ablaze in both the south and north of the country. Though still small, Syria’s rebel outfits are growing in size and mounting increasingly bold attacks against the armed forces.

At least eight people were killed in the latest violence, which comes amid growing fears that the army is planning a major offensive against Homs, the country’s most restive city and scene of some of the worst bloodshed of the uprising.

Alain Juppe, France’s foreign minister, meanwhile said Syria was behind attacks on its troops in Lebanon earlier this week – five French peacekeepers were wounded.

“We have strong reason to believe these attacks came from there (Syria),” Mr Juppe said. “We think it’s most probable, but I don’t have proof.”

When asked if he believed Hizbollah had carried out the attack on behalf of Damascus, Mr Juppe said: “Absolutely. It is Syria’s armed wing (in Lebanon).”

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