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Syrian President Wavers On Crackdown Or Compromise

Syrian army soldiers stood guard at Sheik Daher Square in the city of Latakia after violence between security forces and protesters on Sunday.
Hussein Malla
Syrian army soldiers stood guard at Sheik Daher Square in the city of Latakia after violence between security forces and protesters on Sunday.

Syrian President Bashar Assad wavered between cracking down and compromising Monday in one of the Middle East's most authoritarian and anti-Western nations as thousands of protesters in a southern city defied security forces who fired tear gas to disperse them.

The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country of 23 million people, could have implications well beyond the country's borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

"Nobody has an interest in Syria going aflame," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "Syrian instability has the potential of destabilizing the entire region."

The southern city of Daraa, parched by drought, rural and impoverished, has become the flashpoint for 10 days of anti-government protests in a country that has a history of brutally crushing dissent. At least 61 people have been killed since March 18, according to Human Rights Watch.

Touched off by the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in Daraa, the protests exploded nationwide on Friday. Security forces launched a swift crackdown, opening fire in at least six locations around the country, including the capital, Damascus, and the country's main port of Latakia.

Assad, 45, is now facing down the most serious threat to his family's four decades of authoritarian rule in this predominantly Sunni country, which is ruled by minority Alawites.

The government has tried to calm the situation with concessions. Assad is expected to address the nation as early as Tuesday to announce he is lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.

But while Syrians await the rumored announcement, security forces are trying to crush the unrest. Troops fired tear gas on a crowd of some 4,000 people in Daraa who were calling for more political freedoms Monday, witnesses said. They also fired live ammunition in the air to disperse the crowd. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Elsewhere in Syria, armed groups appeared to be facing off and threatening an escalation in violence in the country's main port city of Latakia. Residents were taking up weapons and manning their own checkpoints to guard against what they say are unknown gunmen roaming the streets carrying sticks and hunting rifles, witnesses said Monday.

It was not clear whether the gunmen were working for the government. One resident said the vigilante groups were just as terrifying as the thugs.

"They are terrorizing people," he said, asking that his name not be published for fear of retribution. "They are regular people who are taking up the role of security forces, that's extremely dangerous."

A human rights group called Syrian Human Rights Information Link said it has documented the arrest of 280 people since the demonstrations began a mix of protesters and rights activists.

The unrest in Syria is a dramatic turn for Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who inherited power from his father in 2000 after three decades of authoritarian rule. In January, he said his country is immune to such unrest because he is in tune with the country's needs.

Syria has for years taken popular legitimacy from its anti-Israel policies and tough stance toward the West. While supporting militant groups opposed to Israel, it has kept its shared border with Israel quiet and says it will recover the occupied Golan Heights only through negotiations.

Even though Israel and Syria are sworn enemies, many in Israel are fearful that a collapse of Assad's regime might imperil decades of quiet along the shared border.

"That has been the working assumption in Israel for years: Better the devil you know than the devil you don't," said Eyal Zisser, director of the Middle East Studies department at Tel Aviv University. "It was a regime that had really scrupulously maintained the quiet. And who knows what will happen now Islamic terror, al-Qaida, chaos?"

Through its close relationship with Iran, Syria has allowed the Shiite powerhouse to extend its influence into neighboring Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, where it provides money and weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas militants.

"Prolonged Syrian unrest has the potential to change all that," Khashan said.

International and Arab reaction to the violence in Syria has been relatively subdued, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested the U.S. would not be willing to get involved in Syria.

She took pains to say this week that Assad is a "different leader" than Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, and that many members of Congress who have visited the country "believe he's a reformer."

Instability in Syria throws into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington's plan to peel the country away from its allegiance to Hamas and Hezbollah.

When Assad took power 11 years ago, he moved slowly to lift Soviet-style economic restrictions, letting in foreign banks, throwing the doors open to imports and empowering the private sector.

The early years of his rule were generally optimistic. He took baby steps toward real reform that gave rise to the "Damascus Spring," a time open political and social debate that was impossible during the iron-fisted rule of Hafez Assad.

Salons for intellectuals began to emerge where Syrians could discuss art, culture and politics.

But the "Damascus Spring" turned out to be short-lived. In 2001, the feared secret police began raiding the salons, jailing scores of activists.

In the years that followed, he slipped decidedly back into the old autocratic ways of his father.

Syria has placed tight restrictions on media coverage by sealing off certain areas and restricting visas.

On Monday, international news agency Reuters says two of its journalists have been released by Syrian authorities two days after they were detained in Damascus.

Television producer Ayat Basma and cameraman Ezzat Baltaji, both Lebanese nationals, have returned home after being detained incommunicado, the news agency said in a story posted to its website.

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NPR Staff and Wires