Updated: March 20, 2011
Has the wave of popular revolts rocking the Arab world finally reached Syria, one of the region's most policed states, a country its young president boasted was "immune" from calls for freedom, democracy and accountable government? Or were the unprecedentedly large protests on Friday just a one-off?
Syria was always going to be a tough nut for pro-democracy activists to crack. It is a country where NGOs and political parties other than the ruling Baath have long been banned; and where dissent, however mild, is viciously crushed. The omnipresent secret police, who are much more visible these days, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad they serve, have instilled a public fear so heavy, it's almost tangible.
But on Friday and Saturday something changed. Several thousand Syrians publicly gathered to cast off that yoke by calling for greater freedoms. The extraordinary protests took place across several cities; in Dara'a in the south, Banias, along the Mediterranean, in the capital Damascus at the renowned Umayyad Mosque, and in Homs not to be confused with Hama, site of a merciless crackdown in the 1980s against the Muslim Brotherhood by Bashar's late father, former President Hafiz Assad. Tens of thousands of people were killed in that uprising, which still remains a potent reminder of the price of rising against the Assads.
It's unclear exactly how many people were killed on Friday in Dara'a after police opened fire on the crowd. Some media reports say six, others five. On Saturday, police in Dara'a reportedly fired tear gas at thousands of mourners taking part in a funeral procession for two protesters killed the day earlier, Wissam Ayyash and Mahmoud al-Jawabra. Mazen Darwish, a Syrian human rights activist just released after spending several days in custody, told the media that Dara'a has been cordoned. The police were letting people leave but not to return into the town.
Assad has moved quickly to tamp down unrest in Dara'a, according to Ayman Abdel Nour, a prominent Syrian dissident and former political prisoner who now edits www.all4syria.info from Dubai. The 45-year-old president has ordered the release of those detained in Friday's protests, and sent a high-ranking Baath delegation to offer his condolences. "Ten bodies were delivered to their parents," Abdel Nour told TIME. "It is the start of a Syrian revolution unless the regime acts wisely and does the needed reforms," he says. "It will continue in all cities, even small groups, but the brutality the regime will use it will show its Gaddafi face, the one it has been trying to hide for the last 30 years after the Hama massacres," Abdel Nour says, referring to the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
(Update: Wire services on Sunday reported that protesters set fire to the Baath party headquarters in Daraa as well as a courthouse and the branches of two cellphone companies. Hundreds of people were reportedly demonstrating against the regime.)
Facebook calls for Syrian "days of rage" in early February fizzled, despite the fact that the country, with its burgeoning youth population, faces many of the same socio-economic factors that helped precipitate uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Oman and other states. Still, a Facebook page entitled "The Syrian Revolution 2011" which has more than 56,000 fans, appears to be emerging as a key virtual rallying point for pro-democracy supporters. On Saturday it posted a 39-second video purportedly shot in Dara'a of a group of men gathered around a bloodied youth in a black t-shirt who appeared to be dead. A volley of gunshots is heard, scattering the crowd. There was no date on the video, nor any way to verify where the footage had been obtained. Syria recently lifted its ban on Facebook, although human rights activists worried that the measure had more to do with greater surveillance of activities on the site than it did with more freedom.
In a twist on a common slogan often heard to praise the president, protesters across the country chanted "God, Syria, freedom and nothing else!" instead of the usual "God, Syria, Bashar and nothing else!" Khaled al-Abboud, a member of parliament representing Dara'a, told Al Jazeera that it wasn't so much what the protesters said, but the mere fact that they were protesting, and blamed the unrest on "Islamists" and a "foreign agenda." "I don't think that we are against what was said, but against what some of these demonstrations might lead to," he told the Arabic satellite television station. "They are fulfilling foreign agendas, they don't represent the street, they want to manipulate the street."
Syria's official SANA news agency confirmed the violence in Dara'a and also blamed "acts of sabotage" for Friday's events there. "A number of instigators tried to create chaos and unrest damaging public and private properties and setting fire to cars and shops," it said, adding that the security forces stepped in "to protect citizens and their property." Blaming a hidden foreign hand and Islamists is vintage Assad. The barrier of fear Syrians must surmount is significant if they are to seriously take on the regime, but then again, as protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and even Libya have proven, so too are the opportunities.