DAMASCUS, Syria — An escalating conflict in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, as well as small demonstrations being held throughout the country, is forcing the Syrian government to decide which path it will follow — that of Egypt, or that of Yemen, Bahrain and Libya.
The government has offered some mild concessions to try to appease an increasingly vocal populace. Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa said last week that the government planned to issue new election laws for both provincial and local parliaments.
Other recent measures include a hodgepodge of incentives aimed at winning over the population: the reduction of taxes on certain foods, the creation of a social aid fund for the poor, amnesty for all misdemeanor crimes committed before March 8, the reduction of obligatory military service by three months, the cutting of parking fees by about 30 cents and increasing public wages by 17 percent.
But at the same time, the government has, in a mixed message, arrested at least 30 human rights activists in the last week alone, tear-gassed hundreds of protesters and shot and killed several more.
“It is a tough one for them. Conciliation or real brutality? For sure people in the government are arguing about this right now,” said Michael Provence, a Middle East expert at the University of California San Diego.
Like Egypt before its revolution, Syria has been ruled for decades by a single party, which employs a security service that maintains an iron grip on its citizens. Also like Egypt, Syria has been struggling to reform its economy, stifled for generations by central control, in an effort to curb unemployment among a ballooning youth demographic that is becoming increasingly impatient.
The most recent unrest came the day the central government sent a committee of high-ranking officials to Deraa to offer condolences to the families of four protesters killed on March 18. Police again shot at protesters, killing at least one more person.
In the aftermath, crowds set fire to several buildings there, including the courthouse and the Ba’ath party headquarters. Protests attended by thousands continued today and troops have been deployed to the area. A peaceful demonstration also took place today in the town of Jassem, about 20 miles west of Deraa.
It is difficult to determine whether the violence is the result of a mismanaged local operation, or whether the central government in Damascus is turning to brutality to stamp out the protest movement.
“There are not too many smart people working for the state in Deraa, probably, so it is not really a case of [the regime] making missteps, but local officials are responding with brutality and then the government has to back out of the situation,” Provence added.
There had been speculation the Persian Nowruz “new year” festival today — a holiday where Kurdish populations celebrate their nationalism — might cause the Deraa uprising to spread to the long-oppressed Kurdish minority. So far, however, there has been no news of violence emerging from the festivities.
One Kurd, an architect from Damascus who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that he did not expect Syria’s Kurds to use the events as a forum for dissent.
“The police will be everywhere,” he said. “We know better … Kurdish people are too scared.”
The military presence was heavy at the parades. Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem said the government had sent 1,000 soldiers to guard one of the festivities, held outside the Kurdish stronghold of Hassakeh in the northeast. The government orchestrated the rallies to be held in empty lots outside major population centers.
A massive, government-organized rally in support of the regime is also planned for tomorrow afternoon. “Spontaneous” pro-government rallies are common here — and their trademark is the matching flags and presidential posters carried by every participant, mainly comprised of muchabarat, or secret police.
Residents of Damascus, where, so far, protests have been limited to no more than a few hundred people, said they are becoming increasingly nervous.
Several sources said that everyone in Syria is looking to Libya. They are worried that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s use of foreign mercenaries will be mimicked here.
There are rumors that Syria has brought in Hezbollah fighters, and that military conscripts could be sent to areas where they might harbor animosity toward the predominant ethnic group — a ploy that would aim to exploit sectarianism.
“Sunnis from Damascus, for example, are sent to Aalawite-held Lattakia,” explained one student from Damascus who has close ties to several of the well-known activists who were arrested during a silent protest outside the Interior Ministry in Damascus last week.
“Nobody can expect what the army will do,” he added. “A lot will depend on how the people receive the army. If they accept them with flowers, it will be OK. But I know the regime will do its best to see that this doesn’t happen.”
And the longer Gaddafi clings to power there, the more committed the regime here becomes to following the Libyan model, sources in Damascus said.
“The problem is that the regime has been committing crimes for decades, so they can’t reform and open up — it is impossible,” said the student, referring to the combined five decades of rule by father and son Hafez and Bashar al-Assad. “If they do, then everyone will see their crimes — the disappearances, the theft, all of it. So they’ll fight to the end.”
He added: “Bashar is worse than Gaddafi — and crazier. Don’t be fooled by the doctor thing (the president is a former eye doctor). He’s willing to do anything.”