Even buying a can of spray paint is seen as a potentially subversive act, requiring an ID card that is registered with the government. Daraa, near the Jordanian border, became the center of the so-far-localized dissent after 15 children were arrested there this month for spray-painting walls with words that have rattled the Arab world: “The people want the fall of the regime.”
On Wednesday, security forces launched a pre-dawn raid in the city in which dozens of people were killed, according to witnesses and activists. Precise estimates of the death toll range from 15 to 51.
On Thursday, witnesses said, thousands of people gathered in the city to bury the dead, chanting, “Syria! Freedom!”
The killings have prompted calls for larger anti-government demonstrations on Friday, testing both Assad’s determination to quell the spirit of revolt by any means necessary and the will of Syrians fearful of chaos and civil war. The stakes are high for this nation of 22 million, which wields vast influence in neighboring Lebanon, has a decades-long territorial dispute with Israel and has been a crucial regional ally of Iran.
Authorities in the Syrian capital, Damascus, are also trying softer measures to contain the unrest. They have released the detained children and referred to some of those killed by Syrian security forces as “martyrs.” At a news conference Thursday, Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad, announced a package of reforms that included opening up the media, allowing political parties and looking into lifting an emergency law in place since 1963.
State-run Syrian TV also announced that Assad had ordered the release of those detained in southern Syria in connection with the protests there. At least 92 people were detained in just the past week, according to the Syrian Human Rights League. Many others are in hiding.
But some observers say Assad — a 45-year-old, Western-educated doctor, who many Syrians still hope will deliver promised changes — will ultimately have to choose: use the historically brutal practices of Syria’s efficiently repressive security forces or implement serious reforms.
“Every Syrian is frightened, and they don’t want to be Iraq. That’s the cautionary tale — and the government has raised the banner of security and stability for the last 40 years,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “They’re hesitating, but it seems like there is a big hole in the dike here, and the fear factor is collapsing. The latest videos streaming out are horrifying; they’re very gruesome.”
The people will either react to the violence perpetrated by security forces in Daraa or submit to the fear, Landis said.