BEIRUT (Reuters) - Four days of protests against corruption and stifling one-party rule have finally brought the Arab uprising to Syria, posing the gravest domestic challenge yet to President Bashar al-Assad.
At least four people have been killed in the protests and demonstrators have set fire to public buildings in open defiance of authorities known for tolerating no dissent.
Serious unrest has been confined to the southern city of Deraa, echoing to the chants of “God, Syria, Freedom,” but analysts say disenchantment at Assad’s rule and the exhilarating spirit of regional upheaval may fuel wider rebellion.
“It is a semi-totalitarian state ... corruption is everywhere,” said Hazem Saghieh, columnist at pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper. “All the reasons are there to expect drastic change.”
Any turmoil in Syria would have an impact well beyond its borders. Under Assad and his father before him, Syria has been Iran’s closest Arab ally, a major force in Lebanon, and a supporter of Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups.
The Baath Party, which seized power nearly 50 years ago, has governed under emergency laws and banned all opposition. Other grievances against authorities include the dominance of Assad’s minority Alawites over the Sunni Muslim majority, corruption, economic hardship and a rising cost of living.
Assad has said Syria’s foreign policy -- hardline opposition to Israel and support for its foes Hamas and Hezbollah -- means that uniquely among Arab rulers, he is in tune with the mood of his people on one of the most resonant Arab causes.
But this so-called “Syrian exception” may offer little protection from protesters focussed on domestic demands for more rights, jobs and better living standards.
When the Muslim Brotherhood staged an armed revolt against the late Hafez al-Assad, he sent troops into Hama, killing many thousands and razing part of the city to the ground in 1982.
Such sustained repression -- the military operation in Hama took weeks and was completed before the outside world learnt its full extent -- may not be an option in an era where mobile phone footage of protests reaches the Internet in minutes.
“The Syrians have shown in the past they are capable of calibrating repression with flexibility,” said Habib Malik, history professor at the Lebanese American University.
“I think they realise what happened in Hama is not possible in today’s world,” he said, adding that the challenge to Assad, although grave, may still be “contained or nipped in the bud.”
Like other Arab states trying to contain dissent, Syria has reversed decisions on lifting subsidies and has raised salaries.
Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International Politics and Security, said it could also defuse tensions in restive Kurdish regions in the northeast by implementing a pledge to grant citizenship to stateless Kurds.
A diplomat in Damascus said Assad, who was elected president unopposed when his father died in 2000, had repeatedly stalled on promised political reform and mistakenly believed that limited economic liberalisation was the key to survival.
“They have been trying to put economic band-aids on a wound gushing with the blood of frustration,” the diplomat said. “Bashar had the time to take pre-emptive moves and embark on genuine reform. Instead the regime is making very bad mistakes.”
Smaller, possibly coordinated, demonstrations took place after Friday prayers in the central city of Homs and the coastal town of Banias, while a crowd briefly chanted slogans for freedom inside the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus.
A peaceful demonstration for the release of political prisoners was broken up in Damascus last week.
But the scale of the protests in Deraa, where thousands of people have taken to the streets, suggests the real threat to Assad comes less from Syria’s scattered and weakened opposition groups than from spontaneous grassroots protest.
If Libyan rebels, now backed by Western military power, make further gains in their fight against Muammar Gaddafi, Syrian protesters would be further emboldened, Saghieh said.
Demonstrations could then intensify throughout the country, and few expect Assad to follow Egyptian and Tunisian presidents who eventually yielded to mass protests and stood aside.
“I think a regime like the Baath regime in Syria would not leave smoothly. It would opt for something like Libya or Yemen,” said Saghieh.
“If it is civil war and anarchy, no one would benefit. Iranians would lose their ally, but the Israelis would have on their borders a very volatile situation,” he said.
Since 2005, when the United States withdrew its ambassador to Damascus after the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri, Assad has engineered a rapprochement with the West, but maintained a hard line against criticism at home.
He has said he is willing to resume peace talks with Israel, insisting on a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights occupied in 1967, while continuing to position Syria as a champion of Arab resistance to Israel.
“The Syrian exception has long rested on the regime’s skill in developing a foreign policy in synch with public opinion -- a unique case in the Arab world. But popular sentiment has refocused around a host of domestic issues left unaddressed for too long,” said Peter Harling, Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“Authorities currently face challenges akin to other regimes of the region, and for the time being are responding in similar fashion. The future now hinges on their ability to reinvent the Syrian exception, by staking out a credible and comprehensive vision for change,” Harling added.
“Repression can only make a volatile situation worse.”
Additional reporting by Khaled Oweis in Damascus and Alistair Lyon in Beirut, editing by Alistair Lyon