Repression or reform? Deadly protests may force Syria's Assad to choose.
Syria protests are gathering steam, fueled by a cycle of violence, misinformation, and small concessions on the part of the government.
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Activists say at least 30 people were shot dead by security forces as hundreds gathered in the southern settlements of Deraa and Sanamein on Friday, which have been focal points of unrest in the past week. The deadly clashes came just hours after a government official announced the president had ordered violence not be used against protesters.
On Saturday, four antiregime protesters were shot dead in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia, according to activists. As the heartland of Mr. Assad's minority Alawite sect, unrest there is likely to be of special concern to the government.
“After Friday and Saturday we can now say that what the Assad regime is facing is a grass-roots uprising for democracy,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian democracy activist based in the United States. "Momentum has spread."
So far, protesters have refrained from calling for the toppling of Assad, but protests are gathering steam, fueled by a cycle of violence, misinformation, and small concessions on the part of the government.
Assad now faces a difficult choice, analysts say: Enact meaningful reform or crush the dissent with force. And his attempts thus far to balance those two opposing demands suggest that there are significant fissures within his government over which course to take.
“It seems like Assad is being advised to adopt mutually exclusive paths of being conciliatory and cracking down hard to deter protesters,” says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian professor at George Washington University. “This does show there are centers of power other than the president who see him as weak and are therefore adopting measures they deem superior.”
Two paths ahead
While some opposition activists say the window for negotiation has closed, analysts say two paths lie open to the Syrian government at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment in the country.
“The president needs to calm the situation by coming to talk to Syrians directly; to give them dignity by stopping the propaganda and show them he trusts them and will listen to their demands,” says Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian dissident who runs the All4Syria website from abroad. “He needs to announce meaningful changes.”
Proposed measures include a change in the government, lifting of the state of emergency, postponement of parliamentary elections due in May to redraft the Constitution, and a pledge to set up an independent inquiry into the recent deaths or protesters.
The other option, according to a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, released on Friday, is escalating repression, which “has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end,” according to the report.