Middle East

Syria protests: How secure is President Assad?

Funeral procession in Deraa - 24 March 2011
Image caption Protests and the funerals of protesters appear to have coalesced in Deraa

The unrest in Syria does not yet appear to have reached the crucial tipping-point which led to the downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian rulers in January and February.

But neither the conciliatory measures announced on Thursday nor the security crackdown against protesters have succeeded in stifling dissent and defusing the crisis.

Trouble continued on Friday in the south of the country, with reports of 10 or more people killed in the town of Sanamein, near Deraa, the city that has become the epicentre of the current unrest.

An official Syrian report said those who died in Sanamein were part of an "armed gang" that had attacked the local popular army base. Other accounts said they were protesters shot by security forces as they tried to head for Deraa.

Defiance continued in Deraa itself, where a demonstration by thousands of angry people was dispersed by gunfire after they attacked a statue of the late President Hafez al-Assad, whose son Bashar assumed power on his death in 2000.

The al-Omari mosque, which was stormed by security forces on Tuesday night, was reported to be back in the hands of protesters after troops withdrew. The mosque has been the focal point of dissent in Deraa.

The incidents indicated that the measures announced on Thursday, some of them aimed specifically at reducing tensions in Deraa, have yet to produce results.

There has been no information indicating a rapid follow-up on the announcements, including the formation of a high-level commission to investigate and take action on the city's grievances.

Protests in Damascus and other cities, on what activists had billed as a "Friday of dignity", appeared to involve hundreds rather than many thousands of people.

One person was reported killed in the city of Homs, north of Damascus, and there were unconfirmed reports of a handful of deaths in the port city of Latakia and in a Damascus suburb.

Protesters are reported to have been pursued, beaten and arrested by security forces, despite promises in the Thursday announcements of greater freedoms and an end to arbitrary detentions.

While surviving what could have been a much bigger challenge on the streets, the regime has shown signs of rallying. Thousands of its supporters staged what were obviously officially-sanctioned demonstrations in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and elsewhere.

Late into the night, Syrian TV carried live pictures of crowds brandishing pictures of the president and chanting slogans - to the same rhythm as those of protesters around the Arab world - such as "The people want Bashar al-Assad" and "God, Syria, Bashar, that's all!"

The official Syrian media portrayed the rallies as being in support of the reforms and decrees announced on Thursday, though they appeared to be more general affirmations of support by regime loyalists.

But the state news agency Sana also referred to the scattered protests, saying: "There were also some gatherings by a number of citizens in some of the provinces, advocating local demands and the acceleration of implementing the reform steps and combating corruption."

Foreign media blamed

In addition to massing their supporters on the streets, the authorities also advanced the argument that much of the trouble has been caused by tendentious foreign media fabrications, and outside hands meddling in the south.

In the early stages of their doomed struggle for survival, the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders also blamed their troubles on outsiders, rather than recognising that they had a home-grown problem. But eventually the presence of hundreds of thousands - even millions - of angry protesters on the streets sealed their fate.

At the end of the day, in Syria, time and events will test the true popularity of President Assad, and the real intensity of public grievances and anger at repression, corruption and economic hardship.

If Deraa can be contained - and active dissent elsewhere remains confined to hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands - hard-liners within the regime may be tempted to think they can get away with giving minimal content to the wide-ranging reform proposals announced on Thursday.

But in Tunisia, unrest festered for some time in the provinces before the flames spread seriously to the capital.

Other Arab rulers have paid a high price for stalling on real reforms.

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