Syria’s Day of Dignity

The Guardian reports:

Demonstrations in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and elsewhere were met with force as security forces struggled to contain unrest that had begun in the southern city of Deraa a week ago.

Thousands once again joined funeral processions in Deraa on Friday, chanting: “Deraa people are hungry, we want freedom.”

Hundreds took to the streets in the cities of Homs, Hama, Tel and Latakia and in towns surrounding Deraa, with smaller protests in the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, which are more firmly under the watch of security forces. Troops reportedly opened fire in some cases.

Protests in the capital are rare and not tolerated by the Ba’athist regime. A witness told the Guardian that efforts at protests in Damascus were broken up by plain-clothed agents using batons.

By nightfall, a counter-demonstration had been mounted near the historic Umayyad mosque in the heart of the capital. Brief clashes were reported between anti-regime demonstrators and loyalists. A large rally then began in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds drove around the capital beeping horns and waving flags, whilst posters of the president were put up in the city.

The violence in Syria came after the government had pledged on Thursday to look into reforms. But activists using the Syrian Revolution Facebook page had called for a day of solidarity with Deraa, where according to unofficial reports at least 44 have been killed in the past week.

In the past, many young Syrians had been willing to overlook corruption, a lack of freedom and the slow pace of reforms in return for what they have seen as dignified leadership brought about by Assad’s anti-Western foreign policy. He has also had a youthful appeal. Both appear to now be wearing thin.

“Regimes become really weak when their image turns to brutality. The killings in Deraa have done that,” said Ziad Malki, an activist living in exile in Switzerland. “The Syrian people want more now.”

Others agreed that a turning point had been reached. “Syrians [normally] never come out to protests. This shows how the killings, the worthless reforms announced yesterday and the government propaganda is insulting and is only making us angrier,” said a 32-year-old man.

Demonstration in Damascus:

Demonstration in Hama:

Joshua Landis writes:

The Baathist regime that has ruled Syria for 48 years is on the ropes. Even President Bashar al-Assad himself seems to have been shocked by the level of violence used by Syria’s security forces to suppress demonstrations that began a week ago, and on Thursday afternoon his office announced unprecedented concessions to popular demands. But the question of whether those concessions assuage protesters’ concerns or prove to be too little too late may be answered in the escalation of clashes that followed Friday prayers, with a number of demonstrators reportedly killed when security forces again opened fire.

The protests began a week ago in the dusty agricultural town of Dara’a, near the border with Jordan, over the arrests of high school students for scrawling antigovernment graffiti. Those demonstrations quickly spun out of control, with thousands joining in, inspired by the wave of revolutions that have rocked the Arab world, to demand political freedoms and an end to emergency rule and corruption. The government responded brutally, killing over 30 demonstrators and wounding many more, according to activists. Gruesome videos of the crackdown, disseminated via the Internet in recent days, have enraged Syrians from one end of the country to the other.

On Thursday, the regime began to try a different tack, with Assad’s spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban offering the President’s condolences to the people of Dara’a and acknowledging their “legitimate” demands, even as she insisted that reports of the scale of protests and the number of casualties had been exaggerated. Oddly, the President has himself not appeared on TV since Syria’s political troubles began, apparently hoping to protect himself from criticism. But Shaaban insisted that Assad was completely against the use of live fire in suppressing the demonstrations. She emphasized that she had been present in the room when the President ordered the security agencies to refrain from shooting at protesters — “not one bullet.”

But the only promised concessions that can be taken to the bank are pay rises for state employees of up to 30%, and the release of all activists arrested in the past weeks. Other reforms, which the regime undertook to study, are job creation, press freedom, permitting the formation of opposition parties and lifting emergency law. Should they be implemented, those changes would be nothing short of revolutionary. But many activists have already dismissed Assad’s offer as a stalling tactic to make it through the next few days of funerals and demonstration. The opposition had called for Syrians to assemble in large numbers in mosques for a day of “dignity” and demonstrations.

In order to mount a serious challenge to the regime’s iron grip on power, opposition activists will have to move their protest actions beyond Dara’a and its surrounding villages, and extend it to the major cities. Their attempt to do so presents the country with a choice of great consequence: they must decide if Syria is more like Egypt and Tunisia, where the people achieved sufficient unity to peacefully oust their rulers, or whether Syria is more like Iraq and Lebanon, which slipped into civil war and endless factionalism.

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