The shootings made it clear that the Syrian government is not abandoning its strategy of relying on force to quell the dissent, despite scant evidence that it is working. Sizable protests took place this week in several suburbs of Damascus and in Aleppo, Syria's economic capital, where one protester was shot dead in the city’s first such fatality. Tens of thousands took to the streets in the central city of Hama, where the government appears to have given up trying to assert control.
In recent days, however, the regime has signaled that it is starting to recognize that it will have to do more than simply shoot people if it is to survive. Reports of small but significant defections from the army; indications that even the elite force on which the government relies to suppress the dissent is stretched; and, perhaps most crucially, a rift in Syria’s once-close relationship with Turkey have combined to give the government jitters for the first time.
“They’re definitely panicking,” said Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The protests are just spreading, and they’re growing bigger, and whatever the Assad regime is doing, it isn’t working.”
One sign of the mood came Thursday, when Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s most powerful businessman, announced he was quitting his companies to devote his life to charity. Though he held no government position, as Assad’s cousin and childhood friend Makhlouf was regarded as a core member of the regime’s inner circle. He controlled a large chunk of the economy through his holdings and acted as manager for the Assad family’s finances.
Opposition figures dismissed the gesture as cosmetic and said it would not affect their demand that Assad step down. Far from appeasing protesters, the move will only energize the opposition, said Beirut-based activist Rami Nakhle.
“This will give them more confidence because it shows all their efforts are making a difference,” he said.
More significantly, Assad is expected to make a televised address to the nation in the coming days, his first direct address to the people and only his third speech since the crisis began. He has not spoken publicly since mid-April, has not been seen since mid-May and for several days last week refused to take phone calls from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Speculation mounted that his control is slipping as his powerful younger brother, Maher al-Assad, takes the lead in suppressing the unrest in his role as commander of the elite 4th Armored Division.