DAMASCUS, Syria – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wavered between cracking down and compromising Monday in one of the Middle East’s most authoritarian and anti-Western nations as thousands of protesters in a southern city defied security forces who fired tear gas to disperse them.
The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country of 23 million people, could have implications well beyond the country’s borders given its role as Iran’s top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.
“Nobody has an interest in Syria going aflame,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “Syrian instability has the potential of destabilizing the entire region.”
The southern city of Daraa has become the flashpoint for 10 days of anti-government protests in a country that has a history of brutally crushing dissent. At least 61 people have been killed since March 18, according to Human Rights Watch.
Touched off by the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in Daraa, the protests exploded nationwide on Friday. Security forces launched a swift crackdown, opening fire in at least six locations around the country – including the capital, Damascus, and the country’s main port of Latakia.
The government has tried to calm the situation with concessions. Al-Assad is expected to address the nation as early as today to announce he is lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.
But while Syrians await the rumored announcement, security forces are trying to crush the unrest. Troops fired tear gas on a crowd of some 4,000 people in Daraa who were calling for more political freedoms Monday, witnesses said. They also fired live ammunition in the air to disperse the crowd.
The unrest in Syria is a dramatic turn for al-Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who inherited power from his father in 2000 after three decades of authoritarian rule. In January, he said his country is immune to such unrest because he is in tune with the country’s needs.