Middle East

Syria: Setting the country alight?

A Syrian security man, sets Syrian flags through a broken window of an office destroyed by Syrian anti-government protesters, in the southern city of Daraa, Syria

Six days after trouble first started in the southern Syrian town of Deraa, it seems to be proving hard for the authorities to contain it.

With access by independent reporters severely restricted, there are conflicting accounts about what happened on Tuesday night near the al-Omari mosque, which has become the focal point of continuing unrest in Deraa.

Both the official accounts and those of activists agreed that about half-a-dozen people were killed, making it the bloodiest single incident since Deraa was paralysed by protests and a security crackdown late last week.

Activists said the victims, including a medical team, were killed when security forces attacked protesters who had settled around the mosque and vowed to remain there till their demands were met.

But the official state media said the medics and a policeman died when an ambulance came under fire from the "armed gang" which they blamed for the trouble.

State TV and the official news agency carried pictures of arms, ammunition and wads of cash they said were found in the mosque.

They said weapons and advanced communications equipment had been smuggled across the border from Israel, which they said was also the origin of more than a million SMS messages urging Syrians to use mosques as bases for fomenting trouble.

They dismissed messages and pictures sent by locals to the outside world as "lies put about to incite and frighten people with stories of a massacre in Deraa, whose people are in fact co-operating with the security forces to chase the armed gang".

'Gravest internal challenge'

The continuing disturbances come despite official efforts to calm the situation by despatching high-ranking delegations to the area.

The governor of Deraa, Feisal Kalthoum, is also reported to have been dismissed, though there has been no official announcement.

Image caption Highly combustible? Syrian protesters are hoping to set society alight

Syria has clearly joined the growing list of Arab countries being shaken by populist uprisings demanding change and reform.

Although the movement there is just starting to stir, President Bashar al-Assad is widely deemed to be facing his gravest internal challenge since he took office in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafiz.

On the face of it, Syria shares many of the qualifications which led to the overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and which underlie the upheavals in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.

Although President Asad has only been in power for a decade, he inherited the presidency from his father who had ruled for 30 of the 37 years since the 1963 coup which brought the Baath party to power.

Like the other threatened Arab regimes, Syria is riddled with high-level corruption and cronyism, linked to political repression enforced by pervasive security services operating unaccountably under draconian state of emergency laws in place for nearly 50 years.

It has the additional factor that much power is concentrated in the hands of Mr Assad's minority Alawite sect (an obscure offshoot of Shia Islam), to the resentment of many in the Sunni majority community.

But there are other elements tending in the regime's favour, notably its nationalist stance in holding firm against Israel and, at times, the western powers.

Much will depend on how Mr Assad deals with the immediate flashpoint for dissent, which flared late last week in Deraa.

No illusions

Up until then, there had been some attempts to mobilise opposition in Damascus and elsewhere, but they fizzled out, leaving the impression that the materials in Syria were not as instantly combustible as they were in other Arab countries.

But thanks to heavy-handed official overreaction to minor local incidents, Deraa suddenly produced the kind of burning popular outrage that has spread like forest fires in other countries.

In Tunis in particular, the protest movement erupted out of regional grievances in outlying areas, and moved rapidly to the big cities.

Syrian leaders have no illusions about immunity.

Shortly after the Tunisian revolution, and before Egypt burst into flames, a top Syrian figure remarked privately: "It is a message to all of us."

More recently, a senior Syrian diplomat said: "It's happening all over the region now, and Syria cannot be an exception."

So the Syrian response at Deraa has been two-pronged: to try to contain the situation with a big security presence, while at the same time at least going through the motions of negotiating over local grievances and promising to investigate the killing of protesters last Friday and punish anyone found to be responsible.

Some of those detained have been freed, including school pupils whose anti-regime graffiti triggered the crisis.

Reports said that orders had been issued from the highest levels that live ammunition was not to be used against demonstrators.

Government ministers were despatched to present condolences to the bereaved families and to negotiate with town elders over their demands.

Meeting those demands will not be easy. They included the dismissal not only of the Deraa governor but also its political security chief, Atef Najib, who is a cousin of President Assad.

Tribal towns

Deraa and other nearby towns such as Jassem, Nawa and Inkhil - where related protests are reported to have been mounted - are largely Sunni and heavily tribal.

Image caption Bashar al-Assad - who has led Syria since 2000 - tolerates little dissent

That means that if the grievances remain inflamed, they could spread, take hold and be very hard indeed to stamp out.

But it also means that if the government succeeds in winning over the tribal leaders and elders, the situation could be contained.

Even if it is, it is impossible to predict whether Syria can ride out the storm unless it makes serious efforts to tackle the deep-seated issues underlying protests throughout the region.

Aware of the economic hardships grating on many Syrians, the government has already dropped plans to remove subsidies from staple goods, and has raised public-sector salaries.

The slogan that proved the death-knell of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, and which is now haunting the leaders of Libya and Yemen, was: "The people want the overthrow of the regime."

So far, even the protesters in Deraa have confined themselves to near-rhyming modifications, such as "The people want the overthrow of corruption", or "The people want reform of the regime".

But the Syrian government might have to do a lot more if it is to stave off serious trouble.

Simply relying on its anti-Israeli nationalist credentials, and dismissing dissidents as agents undermining national security, may not be enough.

"What has happened and is happening in the Arab states shows the impossibility of things in Syria or any other Arab country staying as they are, in terms of freedoms and economic policies," wrote Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of the progressive Beirut daily al-Akhbar.

"It would be a mistake to think that Syria's commitment to resistance [to Israel] would head off uprisings seeking dignity, bread and freedom."

Sectarian risk

In the early 1980s, President Assad's father faced a much more serious insurrection than the current situation so far, and quelled it with absolute ruthlessness.

It was mounted by the Muslim Brotherhood, and came to a climax in the northern town of Hama in 1982, when thousands died as the place was virtually flattened by elite government troops.

That was in the days before the advent of instant satellite TV channels, the internet, mobile phones, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and all the other mechanisms which have made it almost impossible for such doings to be kept from near-instant public view around the globe.

Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi has none the less taken a not dissimilar tack, an experiment in survival that President Assad may be watching with keen interest.

It is hard to imagine such scenes in Syria, but nothing can be ruled out.

It is even harder to imagine western intervention in Syria as has happened in Libya, albeit with political cover from the UN and the Arab League.

The proximity of Israel, and Syria's hostility to it, would render any such intervention highly ambivalent and unacceptably controversial to the Arab League.

Corruption clampdown

Ironically, Israel itself as well as the US and western Europe, would also almost certainly be extremely reluctant to see a similar intervention against the Assad regime, given the huge uncertainty about what would follow in the Sunni-majority country.

Even at the height of tension between Washington and Damascus around 2004-5, the Americans made it clear, for that reason, that they wanted only to change Syria's behaviour, not its regime.

But if dissent should spread and control start to slip out of Mr Assad's grasp, the potential for sectarian civil strife in Syria would be considerable.

As the Deraa disturbances continued, Syrian state TV has been broadcasting reports and interviews with local officials implying that the trouble had been caused by agitators and terrorists manipulated by nearby Israel and its intelligence service Mossad.

But they also agreed that the peaceful protesters were advancing demands that were justified, including the need for reforms and a clampdown on corruption - steps for which they claimed President Assad was the strongest advocate.

Pledges of continued reform and modernisation were repeated by Vice-President Farouq al-Sharaa in a rare briefing to journalists on Tuesday.

But the government may need to give serious substance to such talk if a more serious and widespread revolt is to be avoided.

Steps taken under pressure by other embattled governments have proven to be too little and too late.

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