Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faced the deepest crisis of his 11 years in power on Saturday with one city at the heart of anti-government protests planning to bury its dead after a security forces’ crackdown.
Mosques across Deraa announced the names of “martyrs” whose funerals would be held on Saturday in the southern city, which was described as quiet but tense after reformists were fired on on Friday. The government said protesters were armed.
Municipal workers cleared debris around a statue of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, toppled on Friday by protesters in a scene that recalled the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Iraq in 2003 by U.S. troops.
His father ruled for 30 years until his death in 2000.
Dozens of people, inspired by successful uprisings against authoritarian rule in Egypt and Tunisia, have been killed over the past week around the southern city of Deraa, medical officials said. There were reports of more than 20 new deaths on Friday.
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries.
There was a chorus of international condemnation of the shootings of demonstrators.
But analysts said foreign countries were likely to tread cautiously on Syria, which has strong defenses and a close alliance with Iran and links to Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas and Lebanese Shi’ite political and military group Hezbollah.
Bordered by Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, Syria and its 22 million people sit at the heart of a complex web of conflict in the Middle East.
PROTESTS IN DAMASCUS
There were also protests in the capital Damascus and in Hama, a northern city where in 1982 the forces of Assad’s father killed thousands of people and razed much of the old quarter to put down an armed uprising by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Abdelhalim Khaddam, a former vice president who resigned and defected from the ruling Baath Party in 2005, said on Saturday “the blood of our martyrs will burn this regime.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Friday Syria’s security forces should immediately stop using live ammunition against protesters in Deraa which is on the border with Jordan.
“Syria’s security forces are showing the same cruel disregard for protesters’ lives as their counterparts in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director.
“President Bashar al-Assad’s talk about reforms doesn’t mean anything when his security forces are mowing down people who want to talk about them.”
Some believed the crackdown followed by talks could lead to reforms but many said a tipping point had been reached in Syria.
“The barrier of fear is broken. This is a first step on the road to toppling the regime,” said Ibrahim, a middle-aged lawyer in Deraa who compared events to the uprisings in Egypt and other Arab countries. “We have reached the point of no return.”
Government has accused armed gangs of being behind the violence and blamed them for the killing of civilians.
Access for journalists was restricted, although a Reuters reporter in Deraa said tens of thousands of people who marched on Friday during funerals for demonstrators killed earlier in the week appeared largely to be unarmed.
Inspired by other uprisings in the region, the mourners chanted for “Freedom.”
The International Crisis Group think-tank said the 45-year-old, British-educated Assad could call on reserves of goodwill among the population to steer away from confrontation and introduce political and economic reforms.
“Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership,” the thinktank wrote on Friday. “There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change.
“The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end.”
Internally, rule by the Assads has favored the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, causing resentments among the Sunni Muslim majority.
Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said that friction made many in the establishment wary of giving ground to demands for political freedoms and economic reforms.
“They are a basically reviled minority, the Alawites, and if they lose power, if they succumb to popular revolution, they will be hanging from the lamp posts,” he said.
“They have absolutely no incentive to back off.”
The former vice president, Khaddam, on Saturday called on “the armed forces to take the patriotic choice … and to specify whether it is with the people or with the ruling family.”
Khaddam, who does not enjoy wide support from the opposition due to his senior role during Assad’s rule before his defection, was speaking on a video posted on the Beirut Observer website.
A serving Western diplomat said he had been surprised, however, by how far demonstrators had gone in taking to the streets to demand change. “They’ve crossed the fear line, which in Syria is remarkable,” the diplomat said.
VOLLEYS OF BULLETS
On Friday in a square in Deraa, a Reuters reporter saw protesters haul down the statue of Hafez al-Assad, before security men in plain clothes opened fire with automatic rifles from buildings.
After pulling down the statue, some protesters poured fuel into the broken cast and set it alight.
The crowd of some 3,000 scattered under volleys of bullets and tear gas. The reporter saw some wounded helped into cars and ambulances. It was unclear how many, if any, were killed.
By evening, security forces appeared to have melted away and a crowd of protesters gathered again in the main square, setting a government building on fire, witnesses said.
In the town of Sanamein, which is in the same southern area of the country as Deraa, residents said 20 people were killed when gunmen opened fire on a crowd outside a building used by military intelligence — part of an extensive security apparatus that has protected Baath party rule since 1963.
Syria’s national news agency said security forces had killed armed attackers who tried to storm the building.
Amnesty International put the death toll in and around Deraa in the past week at 55 at least.
Thousands of Assad’s supporters waved flags, marched and drove in cars around Damascus and other cities to proclaim their allegiance to the Baath party and to Assad, whose father took power in a coup in 1970.
Unrest in Deraa came to a head this week after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti inspired by slogans used by pro-democracy demonstrators abroad.
Assad had promised on Thursday to look into granting Syrians greater freedoms in an attempt to defuse the outbreak of popular demands for political freedoms and an end to corruption.
He also pledged to look at ending an emergency law in place since 1963 and made an offer of large public pay rises.
Hezbollah’s television station al-Manar quoted its correspondent in Damascus as saying that a cabinet reshuffle was expected as was a decision to release political prisoners.
But demonstrators said they did not believe the promises.