Demonstrations broke out across Syria on Friday despite a heavy security presence on the ground and indications that the Syrian authorities may be gaining the upper hand in the two-month confrontation that has rocked the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Opposition activists called for now routine Friday protests in solidarity with women killed or arrested during a three-week crackdown by the Syrian army and intelligence services. Several rebellious towns and cities are under siege and as many as 850 people have died, according to the United Nations.
In the northern city of Homs, there were reports of gunfire and at least one person killed, despite reports that Mr. Assad gave orders not to shoot protesters.
“O Bashar, your turn has come, O Bashar, leave leave,” protesters chanted in Homs.
“The people have given a clear message. Maybe Bashar and his thugs can’t understand Arabic,” read a comment on the Syria Day of Rage Facebook page, one of several that is helping promote the uprising.
Homs at the heart of the crackdown
Homs, Syria’s third largest city, has in recent days become the focus of the crackdown by security forces, with tanks and troops sealing off three districts within the city.
A fierce gun battle early Wednesday morning left at least 11 people dead, two of them soldiers. The Syrian authorities have blamed much of the violence and troop casualties on “armed terrorist gangs” and Islamic extremists. The opposition says that the protest movement is unarmed and blames the military casualties on clashes between the regime’s elite army brigades and regular units who sympathize with the protesters. It is impossible to verify either account given the reporting restrictions imposed by the Syrian regime.
Eyewitnesses and residents say the city has been living in a state of fear.
“People open businesses and shops but the moment gunfire is heard, everything closes and the streets are empty,” says a woman from Homs while on a short visit to Lebanon. The bodies of people killed by the security forces are removed from the streets as quickly as possible to prevent authorities from taking away the bodies or detaining family members, she added.
“There are many hundreds of people who have died,” she said.
The woman is an adherent of the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which forms the backbone of Assad's regime.
She lives in a building inhabited by fellow Alawites with armed guards protecting the entrances. She said that graffiti had appeared on walls around the city reading “The Christians to Beirut and the Alawites to the grave.”
The Syrian authorities claim the graffiti is written by Sunnis and indicate the fate of minorities in Syria if the Assad regime is replaced by a state run by Islamic extremists. The opposition, however, maintains the slogans are daubed by Syrian intelligence agents to incite sectarian ill-feeling and to rally the support of minority sects for the regime.
Since Assad announced a reform package three weeks ago, the regime has used force to try and suppress the street protests. It set a May 15 deadline for the surrender of all those who have committed “unlawful acts.” As of last week, the two sides appeared to have reached a stalemate. The opposition was refusing to back down, but the protest movement seemed to be having difficulties gaining greater momentum. The two key cities of Damascus and Aleppo generally have remained quiet.
Assad regime remains confident
Rifaat Eid, the leader of the small Alawite community in Tripoli in north Lebanon, says that an indication of the regime’s confidence that it could overcome the rebellion is that it has not yet played its regional cards. Mr. Eid was referring to the sometimes malevolent influence that Syria can exert over its neighbors, including Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel.
“Syria could open the border with Iraq to jihadists, it has influence with Hamas and Hezbollah. It has many cards to play in Lebanon, but the regime has not used any of them which shows that it is confident,” he says.
Even if the regime is able to break the back of the current uprising, Assad will find himself ruling over a changed Syria and facing a serious dilemma, analysts say.
If he introduces meaningful reforms – such as ending the monopoly of the ruling Baath Party, permitting the establishment of political parties, holding regular free and fair elections, curbing the pervasive intelligence apparatus – he risks undermining the regime’s grip on power.
However, if Assad stalls on the reform package, the protests will likely resume and could even turn violent as frustration deepens.