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Syria protests escalate, but could revolt really take root?

Syria protests continued for a third day in Deraa with security forces reportedly using tear gas and firing live ammunition to disperse demonstrators. Eyes are now turning to the restive Kurdish population.

By Correspondent / March 20, 2011

In this unverified image grab obtained by AFPTV from YouTube, dozens of Syrians demonstrate at an unidentified location on Friday. Four protesters were killed and hundreds wounded by security forces in the southern city of Daraa, rights groups said, as demonstrations erupted across Syria in the first such show of discontent under Bashar al-Assad's rule.

AFP/Newscom

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Beirut; and Damascus, Syria

Of all the Arab states, Syria was considered one of the least likely to experience the convulsions that have roiled the Arab world in the past two months. But a series of escalating demonstrations, unprecedented in scale in recent years, have left many wondering whether Syria will be next.

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On Sunday, the southern Syrian city of Deraa witnessed a third day of protests with security forces reportedly using tear gas and firing live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators. There were unconfirmed reports of dozens of casualties.

“It is too early to come with an assessment of the significance, but clearly this is the most serious [development] that happened in Syria so far and I would not exclude that it could be the start of something bigger,” says a European diplomat in Damascus.

“People are really nervous, really afraid,” says a young man from Damascus who is a close friend of Nahid Boseyah – one of five women detained during last week’s protest in front of the Interior Ministry. Ms. Boseyah, currently on hunger strike, is one of about 100 loosely affiliated rights activists currently under travel ban inside Syria.

He says that he and “90 percent” of Syrians are absolutely "positive” that a major uprising will happen sometime soon in Syria.

Thousands protest in Deraa

Monday could prove critical as the Kurds, potentially the most potent opposition to the Syrian state, celebrate the Persian Nowruz “new year” festival, traditionally an event where Kurdish nationalist sentiment runs high.

“It’s going to be interesting to watch what happens,” says Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch. “I think the authorities are looking at this nervously and just want the day to pass by peacefully.”

There have been a few small protests calling for reforms in Damascus since February. But the arrest two weeks ago of 15 youths in Deraa for scribbling protest graffiti sparked the biggest single antiregime demonstration since Bashar al-Assad became president nearly 11 years ago.

A crowd of thousands gathered in the town chanting “freedom, freedom” along with anticorruption slogans and calls for the mayor to be fired and for the release of the youths. Fire engines hosed down the crowd and security forces fired shots to disperse the demonstrators, killing at least four people.

On Saturday, the funeral for the four victims in Deraa turned into another angry protest, reportedly drawing as many as 20,000 people.

Additional troops have now deployed to Deraa, sealing it off and cutting all telephone communications. Helicopter gunships were seen flying overhead.

Two correspondents in Syria, who could not be named for security reasons, contributed reporting.

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