DAMASCUS, Syria — As the Arab Spring claimed its first dead dictator, the spotlight swung to the other revolts still simmering across the region, in Yemen and, perhaps the most intractable struggle of all, in Syria.
Moammar Gaddafi was the third of the region’s leaders to be ousted by his own people in nine months but the first to meet a bloody end.
His death, coming two months after rebels drove his forces from Tripoli and began setting up a new government, was in some ways a footnote to an already tumultuous year.
But the scenes of his corpse being dragged through the streets of his home town of Sirte inevitably rekindled revolutionary sentiments across the region, along with hopes that his violent demise will give pause to the despots who remain.
In the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, thousands of people swarmed into Change Square to celebrate and to call for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the Tunisian capital, Tunis, where it all began in January with the flight of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, young men took to the streets wrapped in Libyan flags and drivers honked their horns into the night in celebration.
“Now all these tyrants who thought they would rule forever are trembling,” Khelil Ezzaouia, a leader of the secularist Ettakatol party, said at a town hall meeting in a glitzy mall in Tunis as campaigning accelerated ahead of the Arab Spring’s first free election on Sunday.
But it was the implications of Gaddafi’s fate for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who is showing no signs of faltering despite nearly eight months of protests against his rule, that most seemed to capture the imagination of commentators across the region.
“Ben Ali fled. Mubarak is on trial. Gaddafi was killed. The greater the tyrant’s resistance to his people the worse his punishment,” tweeted Essam al-Zamel, a writer at the Saudi newspaper al-Yawm, referring also to Egypt’s deposed President Hosni Mubarak. “It seems that Bashar will be crucified to death in the center of Damascus.”
Syrian demonstrators took to the streets in several towns and cities across the north and south, and in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, to cheer Gaddafi’s demise.
Activists said they hoped it would reinvigorate a protest movement that has shown signs of withering in recent weeks in the face of the sustained severity of the government’s crackdown.
Some also expressed hope that the effective end of the NATO bombing campaign in Libya would free up Western forces to come to the aid of Syrian protesters, who have been calling for a no-fly zone, like the one that facilitated the Libyan revolution, since Gaddafi was toppled in August.
“Maybe NATO will be free now to involve themselves in Syria. At least we hope so,” said Omar al-Muqdad, an activist from the southern town of Daraa who fled to Turkey in the early months of the uprising. “And maybe the regime will get this message, that NATO is free now to attack them.”
There still seems little prospect of that, however. President Obama, speaking in Washington, issued a warning to Arab dictators but did not suggest that the United States would step up efforts to remove them.
“Today’s events prove once more that the rule of an iron fist inevitably comes to an end,” he said. “Across the Arab world, citizens have stood up to claim their rights. Youth are delivering a powerful rebuke to dictatorship. And those leaders who try to deny their human dignity will not succeed.”
Obama has called on both Saleh and Assad to step aside, but there has not yet been a concerted effort by world powers to force their ouster, as was the case with Libya. Russia and China have blocked action at the U.N. Security Council against their ally Syria, and Yemen’s gulf neighbors have been reluctant to pressure Saleh, for fear of jeopardizing his role in the fight against al-Qaeda.
In Damascus, where Assad’s grip seems unshakable and the protests that have engulfed many other parts of the country have failed to gain critical mass, a group of young businessmen at an upscale cafe insisted that Syria was different from Libya and that what happened there could not possibly happen in their country.
Gaddafi had nothing in common with Assad, they said. Assad, unlike Gaddafi, is popular with his people, and Syria has a strong army that could withstand a NATO assault and wreak havoc across this strategically sensitive region.
“Gaddafi was totally insane,” said financial adviser Mohammed Homsi, 33. “We love Bashar. And the strategic calculation is different.”
The likelihood of international military intervention in Syria seems remote, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
But with attention diverted from Libya, and at a time when the gulf states are starting to show signs of impatience with Syria, the pressure is likely to intensify on Assad as well as Saleh.
Gaddafi’s death “holds important lessons now for other dictators in the months ahead,” Shaikh said. “The protests are not going away, and we are seeing a move towards the militarization of those conflicts.
“I think we could certainly see a more concerted effort to isolate and pressure the Syrian regime.”
Fadel reported from Tunis. Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb in Cairo contributed to this report.