Yet another Middle Eastern dictator is on the run. President Bashar al Assad, whose family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for the last 40 years, is facing the biggest-ever challenge to his rule. Friday is likely to be critical, after a call for mass demonstrations around the country.

Yesterday, President Assad was forced to promise a wave of political reforms — including maybe lifting the 50-year state of emergency — after security forces killed 100 demonstrators in the southern town of Daraa.

The claimed massacre started in the early hours of Wednesday morning with an armed assault by security forces on the town’s al-Omari mosque, where hundreds have been gathered in protest since a demonstration last Friday in which five people were killed.

After a day of heavy shooting, 25 bodies were dumped in Daraa’s main hospital, riddled with bullet holes, according to local doctors. But human rights activists claim the death toll is more than 100. Videos posted on You Tube show bodies lying in the street in pools of blood and close-ups of horrible injuries, with automatic gunfire in the background.

Footage of earlier protests on YouTube shows demonstrators throwing rocks, burning cars and shouting democratic or Islamic slogans: “There is only one God”, “The blood of the martyrs will not be in vain”, and “Syria freedom”. There have also been reports of government buildings being torched.

Despite unrest in the rest of the Arab world, Matthew Hall from the ANU’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, was not expecting protests in Syria to flare up like this, given the level of fear of the regime.

“I’m surprised and I’m not surprised. Syrians have same grievances as in Egypt and Tunisia but the regime is far more repressive. In those places you might have got tortured by the police but Syria is scarier by far. So I’m not surprised they’re pissed off but I am surprised it has produced genuine protests with so many people killed.”

The Syrian government claims that only 10 protesters died, not 100, and that the shootings were a mistake, because President Assad had given orders that bullets should not be used. Assad has also promised to charge those responsible for the shootings and release all those who have been arrested.

This should include 30 children — some only 10 years old — who were rounded up in Daraa a couple of weeks ago after spraying graffiti on a wall proclaiming “the people want the fall of the regime”.

It is not known if it will also include 93 opponents of the regime named by Amnesty International who have gone missing in Syria this month, presumed arrested by security forces, or the 300 people that Amnesty believes to be the real number of dissidents who have been arrested in recent weeks.

At a press conference in Damascus yesterday, the President’s spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban promised a package of reforms including higher wages, licensing of political parties, easing of restrictions on the media and a new anti-corruption drive.

Whether the government delivers on any of these — which have been promised before — remains to be seen. But this part of the government’s response is certainly different from his father’s brutal suppression of a revolt to his rule by the Muslim brotherhood three decades ago. In 1982 Hafez al Assad sent elite troops into the northern town of Hama, massacring between 10,000 and 40,000 people while flattening the city with bombs and tanks.

It will be much harder for his son to do that in 2011 with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread the word and with the eyes of the world upon him.

But Assad’s secret police are already cracking down on communications. There has been no mobile phone coverage in Daraa, and there are reports on Twitter this morning of Syrian police calling people in and making them give up Facebook and Twitter passwords.

Certainly, Assad will not be easily dislodged. According to Matthew Hall:

“It’s still under control despite the deaths. And as long as Assad keeps control of the army and the security apparatus he’s safe. No one’s going to dislodge him. But if he mishandles the situation and allows it to spread then he may be in trouble because the elites may dump him.

“It’s if he fails to satisfy them that it might spread.

“Strangely enough, Assad is popular at some level. He’s much more in touch with street opinion than Mubarak. He doesn’t brown nose to the United States, he stands up to Israel, speaks up for Palestinians and is prepared to voice some of the conspiracy theories people on the streets believe in. He’s also being smart in what he’s doing. He’s talking to local tribal leaders in Daraa and trying to fix their grievances, and he will probably pay them blood money and help them out with some aid.”

Noah Bassil of Macquarie University’s Centre for Middle East and North African Studies also believes President Assad’s regime is probably secure:

“I think the situation in Syria has been overblown by western reporters. It’s as if they all hope that Syria’s going to be next and want to see it happen. I don’t think Assad is facing the same level of anger and disenchantment as there was on the streets of Tunis or Cairo and I think he’s been using the carrot and stick pretty well so far. But I’m never comfortable trying to predict what’s going to happen next. Whether we’re now seeing events taking over and cascading across the region it’s hard to say.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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