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Syria Unrest Continues

GUY RAZ, host:

We'll have much more news and analysis on the situation in Libya. But first to Syria, where another brewing uprising poses a challenge to the regime led by Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian army mounted a show of force in the port city of Latakia today, a day after protesters set fire to several buildings housing the ruling Baath Party.

For nearly two weeks now, pro-reform demonstrators have been taking to the streets of cities and towns across the country there. A short time ago, I spoke with Phil Sands in Damascus. He's a correspondent for The National. That's a newspaper out of Abu Dhabi. And I asked him how significant these protests are.

Mr. PHIL SANDS (Reporter, The National): It's hugely significant. It's by far the biggest challenge the regime has faced in decades, probably since 1982. And it's something that many Syrians just thought would never happen. The regime here has ruled since, you know, effectively since the 1970s, and the Baath Party has ruled since the early 1960s. And there's been limited challenge to that.

There was a militant uprising in the 1980s, which was violently put down, and there's just been nothing since then. It's hugely significant and somewhat unexpected.

I mean, two weeks ago, I was sitting here in Damascus and talking to people who are now seeing all those happening, and they were saying, no, it'll never happen in Syria.

RAZ: Syria is - effectively operates under an emergency law, where the government uses that to arrest dissidents and protesters. Where do you see this headed? I mean, do you see this headed toward an Egypt-style revolution?

Mr. SANDS: It's still difficult to say. As I sit here now, we've been hearing reports that the government has said it will lift the emergency law, which is, again, hugely significant because this emergency law has been in place for nearly five decades, and it gives, basically, the security apparatus here the right to do whatever it wants with almost total impunity.

And so we're not really sure. And the government has kind of given mixed signals so far. We've seen, on the one hand, a rather brutal crackdown, and on the other hand, we've seen concessions. And it almost seems rather schizophrenic, as though they don't exactly know whether to just smash the anti-government movement or to do business with them, to try and negotiate with it.

And at the moment, it looks as though they're tending towards negotiation.

RAZ: Phil, do you find that people are more willing to be critical of the regime specifically in the last week or two, or do they feel - do people feel more emboldened as a result of what's been going on in Egypt and in Libya and now in Yemen?

Mr. SANDS: Yeah, there's no question about that. And literally, three weeks ago, people would almost have whispered conversations about the emergency law and whether or not it might be possible to consider removing it or relaxing it a little bit.

And now on television here, Syrians are watching people in the street shouting that the emergency law must be repealed immediately. And at the same time, we've seen the protests growing from rather isolated protests with very specifically local concerns, now they're talking in some places. And I think this is a still a minority, but in some places, they are now talking about regime change.

RAZ: Phil Sands is the Syria correspondent for The National. That's newspaper based in Abu Dhabi. He joined me on the line from Damascus.

Phil, thank you so much.

Mr. SANDS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.