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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It is still unclear whether either option will succeed in ending unrest. “Making change is seen as a risky course because [protester] demands may increase,” says Mr Abdel Nour. “But with growing unrest, it is the only viable option left.”Skip to next paragraph
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What reforms is Assad willing to make?
Pledges announced by the government on Thursday night in an effort to stop Friday protests were widely viewed as too small -- and they had been on the table in the past.
These included a commission to look into the lifting of the state of emergency and drafting new laws on political parties and a public pay rise. Anger has been further fueled by a governmental narrative that has pinned unrest on outsiders and armed gangs. Since Saturday, that narrative has taken a more sinister turn with the government suggesting that sectarianism is to blame.
On Saturday, Syrian authorities said Egyptian-American Muhammed Radwan, who was detained the day before, had admitted to “receiving money in exchange for sending photos and videos from Syria,” an accusation condemned by activists.
“The government has done well by offering condolences and freeing the children that sprayed [antigovernment] graffiti,” says Professor Jouejati. “But the more officials talk of a conspiracy, the less credible they become. And the more force they use, the more grievances they create.”
A changing region
The magnitude of protests may not yet have reached the size to pose an imminent challenge to Assad.
Many in the country, especially from large minority sects of Christians and Druze, see Assad as ensuring stability. But the violence is posing a challenge to governments responding to a rapidly shifting region.
Damascus was largely isolated following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which was blamed on Syria, a charge Damascus has aways denied. But the country has largely been brought into the international fold in the last four years. US Ambassador Robert Ford arrived to Damascus last month.
On Friday, the US condemned “the Syrian government's attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators.” Syrian officials say 27 people, including 20 protesters, have been killed in clashes with security forces in a number of cities since antigovernment demonstrations began over a week ago. Today they announced another 12. But human rights activists say the true figure is over 100.
Syria is already under sanctions from Washington; and it is unclear what further steps could be taken. While many Western governments dislike Assad, there are also fears that his overthrow could cause dangerous instability in the region.
“Many governments may be hopeful of the overthrow of the regime which has bolstered Iran and transferred weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah,” says one analyst in Damascus who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “But there is a huge question mark over what would happen then.”
--- Our correspondent could not be named for security reasons.