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.
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.
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.
Other protests broke out around Syria last week including in Banias on the Mediterranean coast, Homs, and Deir ez-Zour in the east.
What protesters want
The demands of the protesters include repealing the Emergency Law adopted in 1963 when the ruling Baath Party took power, the release of political prisoners, free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, and urgent economic reforms to revive the flagging economy and soaring unemployment and poverty rates.
Syrian activists have used Facebook to spread news and organize fresh protests, including tips on what clothing to wear to protect against tear gas and batons. Posted on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page, a five-step plan for holding a protest recommended the chanting of “positive” slogans and to gather in narrow alleys and crowded markets.
And a video widely shared on Facebook and Youtube – newly open in Syria – shows a montage of police beatings in Syria and Turkey during previous Kurdish National Days. At the end of the video, the word “enough” flashes across the screen.
Analysts say it is too soon to say whether the protests will escalate into a real threat to the regime or simply fizzle out. Much depends on the will of the population to proceed with the protests and also on the response of the regime.
“The Syrian regime is very clever in tactics and in playing games on society,” says Ayman Abdel-Nour, a prominent Syrian activist who lives in Dubai and authors the all4syria website. “These two elements will determine the size of the revolution and to where it can go and to what it can reach.”
Syrian forces deployed to Kurdish northeast
So far, the Syrian authorities have responded with a blend of appeasement and brute force. An investigation has been promised into the shootings of demonstrators in Deraa, the arrested teenagers are to be released, and a top-ranking government delegation was due to visit Deraa on Sunday to pay condolences to the families of the dead.
But the security forces continued to crack down heavily on Sunday with reports of at least one demonstrator killed.
On Monday, eyes will turn to the northeast corner of Syria, home to the majority of Syria’s traditionally marginalized Kurdish population. Syria’s Kurds have a history of rebelling against the regime. The last serious uprising was in March 2004 when dozens of Kurds were killed by Syrian security forces and hundreds subsequently detained.
Human rights sources said that the Syrian military has deployed in force in Qamishly, a town nudging Syria’s northern border with Turkey and the scene of past unrest. The Syrian government is reported to have distributed millions of Syrian flags to be displayed during tomorrow’s events.
A Kurd from a prominent dissident family in Qamishly says that between an ubiquitous police presence during the festival – Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem has said that 1,000 soldiers will guard the festivities outside Hassakeh – and the fear of a violent crackdown, he does not expect a major uprising to come from tomorrow’s events.
“I’ve lost my mother, sister, and brother, and I have nothing more to lose,” he says. “At the same time, looking at what’s happened in previous years, I don’t even want to think what the reaction would be if we step out of line.”
But in a hint of regime unease, activist Abdel-Nour says that the security forces in the Kurdish region were under strict instructions not to clash with the Kurds. “Otherwise, they will lose the battle with 2 million organized Kurds because they are very nationalistic, some of them have arms and they are well organized,” he says.
Mixed mood in Damascus
In Damascus, where the streets are calm, but lined with a heavy security presence, the mood is mixed. Many residents are fearful, citing the shootings in Deraa as evidence that any uprising would provoke a violent response similar to the crackdown launched by Libya’s Col. Muammar Ghaddafi.
“People are watching Libya. The longer Qaddafi holds on, the more power it gives them [the Syrian government]," says the young Syrian in Damascus. He and others say that the Syrian regime has taken cues from Qaddafi’s use of mercenaries, and there are rumours that Hezbollah fighters have entered the country.
Many young people in Damascus identify with President Assad and view him as a reformer who needs time to push through changes.
“I think change is needed but I don’t want a revolution. What would happen then?” asks Nour, a student at Damascus University.
“We have stability, why challenge that?” says a secretary who requested anonymity.
Last month, Assad confidently declared in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that Syria was immune to the uprisings that toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. But that self-confidence has been shaken by the violent demonstrations in Deraa and the sense that Syria could soon join the long list of Arab nations from Bahrain to Morocco reeling from popular demonstrations.
“No one is immune in the region,” says Abdel-Nour, the Syrian activist. “This is a new wave and a new atmosphere and the young, the unemployed, the poor the regular citizens have realized that they have rights.”
Two correspondents in Syria could not be named for security reasons.