The Syrian uprising

The Guardian reports from Damascus:

Syria’s government pledged to consider protesters’ “legitimate demands” after thousands took to the streets for the funerals of nine people killed by the military.

Rights activists described Wednesday’s shootings in the southern city of Daraa as a massacre, claiming that more than 100 people may have been killed when troops fired on a mosque in the early hours and throughout the day.

With protests called for after Friday prayers, Buthaina Shaaban, adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, announced that the government would consider ending Syria’s emergency law and revise legislation for political parties and the media. Similar reform pledges have been announced in the past, and are unlikely to satisfy protesters.

In Deraa, funeral-goers chanted “God, Syria, Freedom” and “The blood of martyrs is not spilt in vain!”, Reuters news agency reported. Some reports said that up to 20,000 people attended, but this could not be verified. The city has been cordoned off .

Deraa’s hospital reported receiving 37 bodies from Wednesday’s violence. YouTube videos apparently showed bloody scenes at the mosque.

Electricity and communications in the city were cut before the attack, which sources said was by a unit of forces headed by the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad.

“This is a crime against humanity because forces opened fire on unarmed civilians without any warning,” said Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights and a visiting scholar at Harvard University.

Michael Young writes:

A key indicator of the uprising’s momentum will be whether the situation escalates after Friday prayers this week. The Assads are taking no chances. The brutality in Dara is a testament to the family’s sense of vulnerability. The minority Alawite-led regime controls all levers of power and intimidation in Syria, including elite military units and the intelligence services. Reports have suggested that troops whose principal role is regime protection were swiftly dispatched to the south. According to Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, this included Republican Guard detachments, and rumor has it that Assad’s younger brother, Maher, has been directing operations.

Haytham Manna, the spokesman for the Arab Committee for Human Rights, appeared to agree that internal security companies, not the army, were leading the repression. He told the BBC Arabic service that “security branches, military and civilian, wearing civilian clothes, they are the ones engaging in [attacks against the Omari mosque].”

The fear is that the situation may take on a sectarian coloring, with Sunnis, some 74 percent of the population, turning against Alawites, who represent roughly 8 to 12 percent. This is simplistic. The Assads will defend Alawite domination as an existential necessity, but Sunnis thrive in many sectors, especially the economy. Assad is married to a Sunni. Syria is characterized by complex, sometimes crisscrossing, political, regional, tribal, ethnic, and class bonds that transcend a narrow sectarian reading of events. That’s why a breakdown of authority could bring about a situation even more volatile and vicious than in Libya.

Jim Muir writes:

The Syrian leadership seems for the moment to have drawn back from the kind of draconian repression that it meted out to crush a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982.

It seems to be following the Egyptian and Tunisian examples rather than the Libyan model, though clearly with the hope that placatory measures may be in time to head off a national upheaval.

In theory, the political reforms promised would – if implemented swiftly and seriously – meet most of the demands of reformists and activists.

The Baath party would no longer enjoy an official monopoly of power, the press would be free, citizens’ rights would be respected, and the corrupt would be punished.

It is hard to imagine.

For it to happen, powerful vested interests would have to be overridden.

Some diehards within the regime may not admit the necessity for radical self-reform until it is too late – if it is not already.

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