By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
(Reuters) – Hundreds of Syrians in the city of Deraa protested on Sunday at the erection of a new statue of President Bashar al-Assad’s late father, nearly eight years after the original was toppled at the start of Syria’s civil war.
Demonstrators and witnesses said residents walked through the streets of the war-ravaged old quarter of the city calling for Assad’s overthrow, days before the eighth anniversary of the start of the conflict.
Deraa was where peaceful protests against 40 years of autocratic Assad family rule began in 2011, and were met by deadly force, before spreading across the country.
The Syrian army, aided by Russian airpower and Iranian militias, recaptured Deraa from rebel forces in July on its way to regaining control of the bulk of Syrian territory.
But since then, residents of Deraa say disaffection has been growing as Assad’s secret police once more tighten their control.
The government had given schools and government employees a day off on Sunday to attend a pro-government rally to inaugurate the new bronze statue of late president Hafez al-Assad, erected on the site of a previous statue felled by protesters.
But a group of youths protesting in Deraa’s old quarter carried a placard reading: “It will fall. Your statue is from the past, it’s not welcome here.”
Lawyer and activist Adnan Masalma said: “People have gathered without organization and to peacefully demonstrate over just demands.”
After Deraa surrendered to government forces last summer, many residents chose to stay put rather than head to remaining rebel-held areas in northern Syria, where tens of thousands of others displaced from recaptured areas have gathered.
“The country has been destroyed and, instead of reconstruction, we place memorials,” read another protest placard.
The Syrian authorities have reinstalled several large statues of the elder Assad after military victories that have seen his son regain most of the territory once held by rebels.
Many residents of those areas now complain that services have not been fully restored, while young men fear being conscripted into the army to fight the remaining rebels.
There has been a spate of attacks on army checkpoints in Deraa province, which the authorities blame on rebels operating covertly.