Syria: The Next Middle East Domino?

"Dignity Friday" brings massive unrest and a brutal government crackdown.

The wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East may be reaching critical mass in Syria.  Pro-democracy activists, using social network sites to coordinate protests, held a mass demonstrations on "Dignity Friday," drawing tens of thousands of protesters out in the souther city of Daraa. In response, the Syrian government opened fire on demonstrators, but it is unclear at this time how many Syrians were wounded or killed.

It is but the latest crackdown by the Syrian government since popular unrest began. According to Reuters, a hospital in Daraa reported they had received at least 25 bodies of victims who died in a previous confrontation with government forces.  "We received them at 5 p.m. local time on Wednesday (1500 GMT). They all had bullet holes," said a hospital official.  Another witness to the carnage told Al-Jazeera that "more than 100 people were killed," and "that many people have gone missing and bodies have been dragged away from the streets."  Other residents claim that security forces shot six people, including a doctor giving aid to the wounded, while a human rights activist reported that security forces had also opened fire on mourners attending the funeral.

In another incident, Syria's state-run television news service (SANA), reported that an "armed gang" attacked an ambulance near the Omari mosque, killing a doctor (whether or not it is the same doctor mentioned above is unclear,) a paramedic, a policeman and the ambulance driver, and that the mosque itself contained a weapons cache which included pistols, shotguns, grenades and ammunition. Protesters had been holed-up in the mosque for a week before emerging to take part in the funeral. The Syrian government also arrested activist Rami Suleiman on Monday in the city of Dael, reportedly for having a telephone conversation with the BBC, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.  Loay Hussein, a political campaigner who had supported the protests, was reportedly taken from his home near Damascus on Tuesday, the Observatory reported.  Journalist Mazen Darwish, founder of the Syrian center for media freedom, was also taken, according to Reporters Without Borders, and on Thursday, 27-year-old blogger Ahmad Hadifa was arrested at his Damacus office for having supported the Daraa protests on Facebook.  A Facebook group calling itself  The Syria Revolution 2011, which has attracted 75,000 followers, has generated the calls for Friday's "Day of Dignity" demonstrations.

Despite the fact that the identity of the protesters have not been determined by other sources,  Danaa city officials have accused them of being Salafists, an austere branch of Sunni Islam.  Salafism is a puritanical form of Islam whose followers believe the first three generations of Islamic traditions and teaching are superior to subsequent generations.  They are Muslims who try as hard as they can "to imitate the Blessed Prophet in every aspect of life," and while they have often been associated with radicalism and/or terrorism, including an association with Saudi Arabia's Wahabbist movement, Salafism is not "inherently synonymous with violence, terrorism, or radicalism," according to

Despite an "emergency" measure banning protests enacted in 1963, there have been outbreaks of anti-government protests in several towns and cities in Syria in the last few days.  According to a popular Egyptian blog, those cities include Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, Baniyas, Homs and Deir al Zor, reflecting the idea that "there was no Arab o [sic] Kurd, Sunni or Shiite or Christian, was a real Syrian day for Syria." Amnesty International has compiled a list of 93 people who were arrested in those cities and others. "The real number of those arrested is likely to be considerably higher," read an Amnesty press release.

Daraa was the epicenter of discontent as of Thursday.  Despite media access restrictions, the Associated Press reported sporadic bursts of gunfire echoing through the city in Thursday afternoon, and that the city was virtually shut down with shops closed and people staying off the streets.  Likely, this is a reaction to what occurred on Wednesday, when people from the nearby villages of Inkhil, Khirbet Ghazale and al-Harrah tried to join the Daraa demonstrations. Security forces reportedly opened fire and hit them with rifle butts as they approached.  A Daraa resident reported that seven more people were killed and hundreds more were wounded in that bloodbath.  "Daraa today is like a ghost town, we are very scared," he said. "Everything is closed and the streets are empty, everywhere you look there's security."

Why Daraa?  Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, said that the agricultural town has "long been a center of restiveness and upheaval."  He further noted that a five-year long drought and an increase in the price of gasoline necessary to fuel the pumps that bring low-level water to the surface have resulted in severely declining levels of crop yields and income for the region's farmers.  People in the area were already angry at what they saw as an ineffectual government response to the crisis, and the anger was exacerbated by the arrest of 15 local teenagers for writing, "The people want the regime to fall" on a wall.  Those words have been used as the slogan for uprisings across the Middle East.

The events occurring in Daraa are the biggest challenge to the authoritarian government of Syria since the 1970s.  And much like their benefactors in Iran, the repressive regime of Bashar Assad, like his father, Hafez before him, has met those challenges with deadly force.  One can only speculate whether Mr. Assad, who, as recently as two months ago, told the Wall Street Journal that, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, his country was "stable," will continue using deadly force to suppress his own citizens.

Despite that reality, some of the demonstrators apparently sense a weakening in the regime.  They have presented the government with a list of demands, something that might have been considered unthinkable prior to the other uprisings in the region.  Those demands include lifting the 1963 emergency law and releasing all political prisoners.  Assad has countered with the release of the 15 teenagers and the sacking of Faisal Kalthoum, the provincial governor who ordered them thrown in jail.  He has also reduced the reviled two-year period of compulsory military service by three months and, like so many before him, has promised to tackle corruption.

Gerges explains that such small steps are unlikely to achieve the desired result.  "Assad is still not dealing with the root causes. Syria is facing a crisis, a crisis of government, society and politics, " he explained.  The protesters apparently concur.   They have warned government officials that unless Assad submits to their demands, Dignity Friday could evolve into the "Friday of Martyrs," with multiple uprisings occurring throughout the nation.

Can Assad be toppled? Such a scenario is highly unlikely.  Assad and all of the country's top government officials, as well as the military and security forces, belong to the same Alawi sect of Islam, and odds are, such tight-knit relationships will help greatly in successfully repelling any challenge to their authority.  Yet Gerges believes such success will only be temporary, and that Syria is "not immune" to the toppling of authoritarian regimes occurring throughout the Middle East.

The United Nations, along with France and the United States, has condemned the violence that has already taken place, with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling for  "a transparent investigation into the killings." The U.S. State Dept. is urging the Syrian government to "exercise restraint and to refrain from violence."  "We are deeply concerned by the Syrian government's use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights. We condemn these actions," said State spokesman Mark Toner.

We'll soon find out if the Assad regime is listening.


Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website