Another wave of pro-democratic protests hits a country with a long history of oppression.
Unrest in Syria: What you need to know
The uprising in Libya, which provoked military intervention by the United States and its allies to avert a brutal government crackdown, has dominated this week's headlines. But meanwhile, there's new unrest in yet another Middle Eastern nation--one with perhaps greater strategic implications for the United States
Could the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad be set to go the way of the dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, which were toppled last month by massive popular protests? And what would that mean for the U.S.?
Here's a rundown on the current situation in Syria:
What exactly has been happening on the ground?
Mass protests against the government have been going on since last week, and on Wednesday, demonstrators in the southern city of Dara'a were killed by al-Assad's security forces while taking refuge in a mosque. The number of casualties hasn't been confirmed, but some witnesses have put it as high as 100.
The deaths prompted even bigger anti-government demonstrations in Dara'a yesterday, and today the protests spread to the capital city of Damascus, where people called out: "Dara'a is Syria" and "We will sacrifice ourselves for Syria." In response, supporters of the president chanted back: "God, Syria, and Bashar, that's all."
Fifteen children in Dara'a were arrested after writing graffiti calling for an end to al-Assad's rule. All were under the age of 14. That sparked demonstrations last week demanding the release of the kids--protests quelled by government security forces using tear gas, water cannons, and live ammunition. In response, anger steadily rose this week, leading to Wednesday's protests at the mosque which triggered more government violence.
What are the protesters' grievances?
Like their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in the region, the protesters want democratic reforms--for instance, more freedom for political parties--as well as a more open press, an end to corruption and cronyism, increased economic opportunities, and stronger constitutional rights.
Syria has been under emergency law since 1963, which has allowed the government to arrest people without warrants and imprison them without trial. Al-Assad's father ruled the country from 1971 until 2000, when al-Assad assumed office. Foreign reporters operate in Syria only with great difficulty--one reason why there's been relatively little recent coverage of events.
How has the government responded?
The government has responded with a mix of mild concessions, violence, and propaganda. It said yesterday that it would "study" lifting emergency rule and allowing more political parties, would consider a new law to increase press freedoms, and would raise the salaries of public workers.
But the regime has also instigated a crackdown. According to human rights groups, in addition to the violence at the mosque on Wednesday, anti-government activists have been arrested, some for their activities online. And al-Assad's camp has sought to use anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment for its own purposes: A government media adviser charged yesterday that the protests hamper Syria's "ability to be a pillar of resistance against Zionism and U.S. schemes."
How is the U.S. reacting so far?
Yesterday, the White House issued a statement strongly condemning Wednesday's attacks and the arrests of human-rights activists. A State Department spokesman declared: "Words are words. We'll obviously look for action."
For now, any kind of military intervention is out of the question, especially since the United States looks likely to be engaged in Libya for weeks at least. Two Republican senators yesterday urged the administration to begin a "sustained campaign of outreach" to the opposition. But America's immediate power to affect the situation appears limited.
What are the implications of this for Americans?
Al-Assad's government has close ties to Iran, and has long had chilly relations with the United States. Plus, there's evidence that it has sought to initiate a nuclear program. So if the Syrian government ultimately were to fall and be replaced by a more democratic, pro-U.S. alternative, America's ability to promote its vital interests in the region--fighting terrorism and extremism, protecting Israel, and ensuring a stable oil supply--could expand. Still, it's difficult to predict how any instability might play out.
Beyond that, the United States has an interest in standing on the side of democracy and human rights and preventing a humanitarian crisis -- one reason for the Libya intervention. If al-Assad's regime were to threaten mass killings on the scale that briefly emerged as a possibility in Libya, the Obama administration and its allies would likely come under intense pressure to act, though their room to maneuver would still appear very limited. For now though, we're not at that point.
(Anti and pro-al-Assad protesters clash after Friday prayers in Damascus, Syria, March 25, 2011.: Muzaffar Salman/AP)