According to Reuters two people have been killed protesting in Deraa on Friday. Some estimates on twitter put the number higher. This, alongside other confirmed protests in Homs and Banyas, as well as more scuffles in Damascus suggest that the protest movement has already picked up more momentum than most expected after the relatively small demos in Damascus on 15th and 16th. While many may think that two or more deaths in a police state like Syria is nothing new, it is more unusual than you might think, and don’t be surprised to see support for these uprisings to swell as a consequence. How the regime reacts, with more violence or standing back, will be crucial too. Here are a few other first observations:
1. The places where there were protests today, Deraa, Homs and Banyas are not know for their conservatism or Islamist tendencies. Though people sang ‘Syria, God and Freedom,’ this is an inversion of a Ba’athist slogan, not a call for Islamism. The regime may well play on fears of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, but the initial location of these demonstrations suggest otherwise for now.
2. The main protagonists in the demo videos circulated were young men. Much has been made of the fear factor in Syria deterring people from demonstrating, yet here is a generation too young to remember Hama that appear emboldened by recent regional events. They may not play by the same rules expected of their parents, wrong-footing the regime on how best to react.
3. The decision to unblock facebook (and, importantly, YouTube) has had an impact already, but not in the way the regime wanted. One suspects the regime thought that by unblocking facebook they would be able to monitor its users better. The reality suggests they have let the genie out of the bottle and are already one step behind events.
4. The protestors were still not shouting anti-Bashar chants, but daring to call Rami Mahklouf a thief in Deraa crossed a red line. On the one hand it shows how much resentment there is towards the enrichment and corruption of Assad’s family and inner circle. On the other hand, it shows that people still dare not attack Bashar himself. This may change if repression is heavy-handed.
5. Finally, what will Bashar’s reaction be? The deaths in Deraa cross a line that he, one would think, must react to. Unlike Gaddafi, Bashar has never positioned himself as a warrior (despite the many images of him in uniform) but instead as an approachable reformer. The heavy-handedness of the security forces today may force the mask to slip a bit. There is the danger that his long-standing attempt to position himself as a reformer of the regime battling internal conservative figures (the old guard) could be exposed as a myth. Will he address the nation and offer concessions, blame it all on Islamists, Israel and vandals or ignore it and hope it goes away? This may be a far greater test of his leadership than many initially thought.