Friday, March 25, 2011


Syrians don't seem to be reacting well to attempts at suppressing their protests:

Thousands of Syrians took to the streets Friday demanding reforms and mourning dozens of protesters who were killed during a violent, weeklong crackdown that has brought extraordinary pressure on the country's autocratic regime.

There were no immediate reports of serious violence.

Daraa, the main city of southern Syria's drought-parched agricultural heartland, has become a flashpoint for protests in a country whose leadership stands unafraid of using extreme violence to quash internal unrest. The coming days will be a crucial test of the surge of popular discontent that has unseated autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens to push several others from power.

And Secretary Gates rather surprised me:

"I would say that what the Syrian government is confronting is in fact the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people," Gates said during a visit to Israel.

"Some of them are dealing with it better than others. I've just come from Egypt, where the Egyptian army stood on the sidelines and allowed people to demonstrate and in fact empowered a revolution. The Syrians might take a lesson from that," he told reporters.

Calling on the army not to fire on demonstrators and engineer the exit of Assad, eh? Now that's outreach I can believe in.

The Syrian government has hastily promised some reforms to defuse public anger. If that doesn't work, will Syria risk unleashing violence? Or, given Assad's belief that the people and the regime are united in common hatred of Israel, will Syria beg their ally Iran to help them stir up trouble with Israel through proxies in southern Lebanon and Gaza?

This has the potential to get ugly far beyond Daraa.

UPDATE: Now there is violence in Syria:

Violence erupted around Syria on Friday as troops opened fire on protesters in several cities and pro- and anti-government crowds clashed on the tense streets of the capital in the most widespread unrest in years, witnesses said.

Soldiers shot at demonstrators in the restive southern city of Daraa after crowds set fire to a bronze statue of the country's late president, Hafez Assad, a resident told The Associated Press. Heavy gunfire could be heard in the city center and witnesses reported several casualties, the resident said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

An activist told the AP that witnesses had reported one demonstrator shot dead by security forces in the coastal city of Latakia, and another slain in the central city of Homs. He said several people had been hospitalized in Latakia.

In the capital, Damascus, people shouting in support of the Daraa protesters clashed with regime supporters outside the historic Umayyad mosque, hitting each other with leather belts.
It's certainly broad, though I have no idea how deep resistance runs.

And south of Syria, Jordan is heating up:

Scores of people were injured Friday as Jordanian protesters demanding reforms clashed with government supporters, pelting each other with stones, as unrest intensified in this key U.S. ally.

Police fired water cannons to disperse the crowd, then hundreds of riot police, some wearing masks, stormed the area, hitting anti-government demonstrators with batons and dragging at least a dozen into a nearby government building.

So far, those protesters in both countries are calling for regime reform and not regime change. Will either government drive the protesters to want more? Never forget that the Lexington and Concord clashes represented American colonists trying to assert their rights as British citizens. It took a year of off-and-on conflict to drive us to fight for independence from Britain.

UPDATE: Well, the government is sure treating the protesters as enemies:

Troops opened fire on protesters in cities across Syria and pro- and anti-government crowds clashed in the capital's historic old city as one of the Mideast's most repressive regimes sought to put down demonstrations that exploded nationwide Friday demanding reform.

Let's see if the people manage to return the favor, and if all of the army remains loyal.

UPDATE: Well, I don't know how the bulk of the protesters feel about regime reform or regime change, but the symbolism of two events speaks volumes:

Thousands of mourners at a funeral for a Syrian killed in anti-government protests burned a ruling Baath party building and a police station on Saturday as authorities freed 260 prisoners in a bid to placate reformists.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was facing the deepest crisis of his 11 years in power after security forces fired on protesters on Friday, adding to a death toll that rights groups have said now numbers in the dozens.

Mosques across Deraa announced the names of "martyrs" whose funerals would be held in the southern city and on Saturday hundreds were gathering in the main square chanting for freedom.

Three bare-chested young men climbed onto the rubble of a statue of late President Hafez al-Assad, which protesters pulled down on Friday in a scene that recalled the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Iraq in 2003 by U.S. troops.

A witness said they had cardboard signs reading "the people want the downfall of the regime," a refrain heard in uprisings across the Arab world from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen.
Huh. This sure seems like it has spread far enough to require dramatic response by the government--either major reform promises or major bloodshed.

Will the Alawite power base of Assad allow him to offer real reforms? Will the security forces obey orders to wade in and kill on a major scale? Yes, the security forces did kill 20 or 30 thousand a few decades ago at Hama, but that was a long time ago. How has the regime done in inculcating loyalty in an age of budget shortfalls that keep the army on short rations?

Whatever the result of these protests, we know that shared hatred of Israel has not made Assad immune to anger from his own people, as Assad claimed recently was a pillar of his regime.