It was slow in coming, but the Arab revolutionary wave of 2011 has reached Syria. Its arrival has forced a reassessment of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s domestic legitimacy and prospects for survival. Over the past few months, many commentators have maintained that the regime would remain sheltered from regional turmoil. As the prominent Syrian dissident Suhair Atassi lamented, her country is “a kingdom of silence” dominated by fear.
Now, the story line has changed dramatically. Events in the southern city of Deraa have challenged the conventional wisdom about Syria’s stability. Protests began on March 18, after security forces detained 15 children for spraying anti-regime graffiti on walls there. Seeking to nip any ideas of revolution in the bud, Assad’s security forces attacked the protesters, killing four.
The next day, thousands took to the streets, torching the ruling Baath Party headquarters, several other government buildings, and the local branch of the country’s main cell phone company, Syriatel, which is owned by Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, whom the protesters singled out by name, calling him a “thief.” They also defaced many of the ubiquitous posters of Assad that the regime, Soviet-style, hangs in public places, and tore down a statue of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father.
The regime’s heavy-handed crackdown on the children lit the fuse on the Syrian people’s political and economic grievances. They initially demanded an end to the emergency laws first enacted 48 years ago when the Baath Party seized power in Syria. But by March 19, they were calling for “revolution.” The old regime-sanctioned chants of “God, Syria, and Bashar only” had been replaced with “God, Syria, and freedom only.”
The regime attempted to calm the situation by sending to Deraa a delegation headed by Faisal al-Miqdad, the deputy foreign minister, to offer condolences and promise an investigation into the deaths of the four protesters. It also pledged to release the original 15 detainees. But the delegation was not well received, and the riots continued and spread to