DAMASCUS: Dozens of Syrian pro-regime activists have set up a “human shield” camp on Mount Qassioun overlooking Damascus in an effort to stop any US-led strike on their country.
Despite Saturday’s announcement of a US-Russian deal averting an immediate military strike on Damascus, die-hard government supporters are refusing to budge.
Mount Qassioun, site of a presidential palace, dominates Damascus and is traditionally a popular spot for family outings, to take in the view or enjoy the cool air and escape from the stifling summer heat of the city. Now the Syrian army has set up artillery positions to shell rebel-held areas below, making it a prime target for any Western military action.
In the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, hundreds of foreigners travelled to Syria’s neighbour to act as human shields. Young supporters of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government have now pitched 25 tents on the steep road which climbs to Mount Qassioun, skirting a once-popular panoramic restaurant forced to shut by the war.
“We will go on with our sit-in until the government announces that Syria has escaped from any threat of aggression,” said protest organiser Ogarit Dandash, a Lebanese journalist. Washington has threatened a military strike on Syria following an August 21 chemical weapons attack on Damascus suburbs that is said to have killed hundreds of people.
But on Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov struck a deal for Syria to hand over chemical weapons for destruction by mid-2014. “We are here on Qassioun to tell the Americans (if they want to strike) “over our bodies,’” said Mustafa Al Khani, a popular Syrian comedian who has joined the protest camp.
“This is not a political decision, but a patriotic one,” said Khani.
Ahmad Hammud, 22, echoed him. “Our presence here as human shields will not prevent America from striking, but should their missiles kill us, our ideals will not die with us,” he said.
Syrian flags flutter over tents and along the road leading to the protest camp, dotted with posters condemning any attack on the regime, which denies charges of having carried out last month’s poison gas attacks.
“Don’t touch Syria,” reads one message, while another says, “Syria’s enemies are the enemies of civilisation.”
The protesters, mostly young Syrians, also pray for peace to return to their country, where a 30-month-old conflict has killed more than 110,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“May peace take root in Syria,” one poster reads.
Nadia Khaddour, 26, travelled from the city of Hama in central Syria to join the group.
“The Syrian people are a stubborn people,” she said.
A 30-year-old woman said she volunteered to become a “human shield” because she wanted “to send a message saying we are here to defend our country as long as threats persist.”
On Sunday, a day after striking the deal with his Russian counterpart, Kerry said the threat of military action against Al Assad’s regime remains “real.”