Rami G. Khouri writes: Syria is now the critical country to watch in the Arab world, after the homegrown regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, and the imminent changes in Yemen and Libya.
The Syrian regime headed by President Bashar Assad is now seriously challenged by a combination of strong forces within and outside the country. His current policy of using force to quell demonstrators and making minimal reform promises has lost him credibility with many of his own citizens, largely due to his inability to respond to his citizens’ reasonable demands for democratic governance. His downfall is not imminent, but is now a real possibility.
The next few weeks will be decisive for Assad, because in the other Arab revolts the third-to-sixth weeks of street protests were the critical moment that determined whether the regime would collapse or persist. Syria is now in its fourth week. Having lost ground to street demonstrators recently, the Assad-Baathist-dominated secular Arab nationalist state’s response in the weeks ahead will likely determine whether it will collapse in ruins or regroup and live on for more years.
Assad should recognize many troubling signs that add up to a threatening trend. The number and size of demonstrations have grown steadily since late March, making this a nationwide revolt. Protesters’ demands have hardened, as initial calls for political reform and anti-corruption measures now make way for open calls for the overthrow of the regime and the trial of the ruling elite. Some portraits and statues of the current and former president are being destroyed, and government buildings attacked. More protesters openly call for the security services to be curbed – an unprecedented and important sign of the widespread popular loss of fear of security agencies that always bodes ill for such centralized systems of power.
Syrian security forces have arrested at least 500 pro-democracy activists, a rights group said, as the government continues a violent crackdown on anti-government protests across the country.
The arrests followed the deployment of Syrian troops backed by tanks and heavy armour on the streets of two southern towns, the Syrian rights organisation Sawasiah said on Tuesday.
The group said it had received reports that at least 20 people were killed in the city of Deraa in the aftermath of the raid by troops loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on Monday. But communications have been cut in the city, making it difficult to confirm the information. (Al Jazeera)
European governments urged Syria on Tuesday to end violence against demonstrators after President Bashar al-Assad sent tanks to crush opposition in the city of Deraa where an uprising against his rule first erupted.
“We send a strong call to Damascus authorities to stop the violent repression of what are peaceful demonstrations,” Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said at a joint news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Rome.
International criticism of Assad’s crackdown, now in its sixth week, was initially muted but escalated after the death of 100 protesters on Friday and Assad’s decision to storm Deraa, which echoed his father’s 1982 suppression of Islamists in Hama. (Reuters)
NATO plans to step up attacks on the palaces, headquarters and communications centers that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi uses to maintain his grip on power in Libya, according to Obama administration and allied officials.
White House officials said President Obama had been briefed on the more energetic bombing campaign, which included a strike early on Monday on Colonel Qaddafi’s residential compound in the heart of Tripoli, the capital.
United States officials said the effort was not intended to kill the Libyan leader, but to bring the war to his doorstep, raising the price of his efforts to continue to hold on to power. “We want to make sure he knows there is a war going on, and it’s not just in Misurata,” said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity in discussing military planning.
The NATO campaign, some officials said, arose in part from an analysis of Colonel Qaddafi’s reaction to the bombing of Tripoli that was ordered by President Ronald Reagan a quarter-century ago. Alliance officials concluded that the best hope of dislodging the Libyan leader and forcing him to flee was to cut off his ability to command his most loyal troops. (New York Times)
Refugees fleeing Libya’s Western Mountains told of heavy bombardment by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces as they try to dislodge rebels in remote Berber towns.
The capture of the Dehiba-Wazin crossing on the Tunisian border by rebels last week has let refugees flee in cars or on foot along rocky paths, swelling the numbers of Libyans sheltering in southern Tunisia to an estimated 30,000 people.
While the world’s attention has been on the bloody siege of the western rebel stronghold of Misrata and battles further east, fighting is intensifying in the region known as the Western Mountains.
“Our town is under constant bombardment by Gaddafi’s troops. They are using all means. Everyone is fleeing,” said one refugee, Imad, bringing his family from Kalaa in the heart of the mountains. (Reuters)
Egypt ex-minister put on trial for shootings
Habib al-Adly, Egypt’s ex-interior minister, has gone on trial in Cairo for the second time.
He is accused of having ordered the shooting of demonstrators during protests that toppled the former regime.
Adly has been charged along with six former aides, the state news agency reported on Tuesday. His case has been adjourned until late May.
He is also being held responsible for insecurity that prevailed after police disappeared from the streets of Cairo in the early days of the protests.
According to an official toll, 846 people were killed and several thousand wounded during 18 days of massive nationwide street protests that forced president Hosni Mubarak to quit on February 11. (Al Jazeera)
Yemen’s opposition has agreed to take part in a transitional government under a Gulf-negotiated peace plan for embattled leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to step aside in a month in exchange for immunity for him and his family.
A spokesman for an opposition coalition said on Monday that his group had received assurances in order to accept the deal.
“We have given our final accord to the [Gulf] initiative after having received assurances from our brothers and American and European friends on our objections to certain clauses in the plan,” Mohammed Qahtan said.
He added that the Common Front, a Yemeni parliamentary opposition coalition, had notified Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) secretary-general Abdullatif al-Zayani of the decision.
But many pro-democracy protesters, who are not members of the coalition that agreed to the peace talks, appear to be unconvinced by the Gulf-proposed deal and have called for fresh demonstrations, as security forces continued their crackdown. (Al Jazeera)