Popular unrest spread in southern Syria on Monday, activists said, with hundreds demonstrating against the government in the town of Jassem – but authorities did not use force to quell the latest protest.
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Security forces killed four civilians in demonstrations that erupted last week in the town of Deraa, in the most serious challenge to President Bashar Assad’s rule since he took power 11 years ago.
“This is peaceful, peaceful. God, Syria, freedom!” chanted the protesters in Jassem, an agricultural town 30 km. west of Deraa in the Hauran region, southeast of the Golan Heights.
The authorities appeared to adopt less heavy-handed tactics, choosing not to intervene in protests demanding freedom and an end to corruption and repression, but not the overthrow of Assad.
The ruling Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963.
Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, said he did not believe the Assad government was in imminent danger.
“This could, however, continue a process of erosion of the regime,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “We already see the erosion of the regime in northern Syria, where there’s a very strong Salafi jihadi element... This is an ongoing process that has been exacerbated by the latest events in other countries.”
Should the protests reach Damascus, he said, authorities would be much more likely to quickly and forcefully crack down.
Bar added that he did not expect Syria to draw the kind of international outcry that prompted military intervention in Libya.
“As opposed to Libya, which really can’t hurt anybody,” he said, “Syria can, if attacked, start a war with Israel – and can really unleash hell.”
In Deraa, hundreds of black-uniformed security forces wielding AK-47 assault rifles lined the streets, but did not confront thousands of mourners who marched at the funeral of 23-year-old Raed al-Kerad, a protester killed in the city.
“God, Syria, freedom. The people want the overthrow of corruption!” they chanted.
The slogan is a play on the words “the people want the overthrow of the regime” – the rallying cry of revolutions that overthrew the veteran rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, and have spread across the Arab world.
The mourners later gathered at Al-Omari Mosque in the old quarter of Deraa.
Troops set up checkpoints at the entrances of Deraa and were checking identity cards. Syrian Justice Minister Muhammad Ahmad Yunis went to the city hall in an effort to calm emotions and open a dialogue with protesters.
Last Friday, security forces opened fire on civilians taking part in a peaceful protest in Deraa to demand the release of 15 schoolchildren detained for writing protest graffiti, along with political freedoms and an end to corruption.
Authorities released the children on Monday in a sign they were hoping to defuse tension in the border town, which witnessed more protests after Friday’s crackdown.
Local notables have also demanded the release of political prisoners, the dismantling of secret police headquarters in Deraa, the dismissal of the governor, a public trial for those responsible for the killings and the scrapping of regulations requiring secret police permission to sell and buy property.
Deraa’s secret police is headed by a cousin of Assad, who has emerged in the last four years from isolation by the West over Syria’s role in Lebanon and Iraq and backing for mostly Palestinian terror groups.
France, which has been a strong proponent of rehabilitating Syria’s ruling elite in the West, urged Damascus “to respond to the Syrian people’s aspirations with reforms.”
“France calls on Syria to respect its international commitments on human rights, especially regarding freedom of opinion and speech,” the French Foreign Ministry said.
“If it is civil war and anarchy, no one would benefit. Iranians would lose their ally – but the Israelis would have on their borders a very volatile situation,” Hazem Saghieh, a columnist at pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, told Reuters.
Assad has said Syria’s foreign policy – hardline opposition to Israel and support for its foes Hamas and Hezbollah – means that, uniquely among Arab rulers, he is in tune with the mood of his people on one of the most resonant Arab causes.
But this so-called “Syrian exception” may offer little protection from protesters focused on domestic demands for more rights, jobs and better living standards.
“The Syrian exception has long rested on the regime’s skill in developing a foreign policy in synch with public opinion – a unique case in the Arab world. But popular sentiment has refocused around a host of domestic issues left unaddressed for too long,” said Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“Authorities currently face challenges akin to other regimes of the region, and for the time being are responding in similar fashion,” Harling added. “The future now hinges on their ability to reinvent the Syrian exception – by staking out a credible and comprehensive vision for change.”