Syria protests - AP - 25.3.11
Anti-Syrian government protesters after Friday prayers at Omayyad mosque in Damascus, Syria. Photo by AP
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The unrest sweeping the Arab world spread across Syria over the weekend as tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated against President Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, Homs, Hama and Dara'a. The latter city has been the site of demonstrations for more than 10 days now.

Amnesty International has estimated that 55 people were killed in the demonstrations in Dara'a last week, and over the weekend an additional 15 to 20 people were reported killed in Sanamein, just outside Dara'a in the south. Two people were reportedly killed in Latakia and another three in a Damascus suburb.

Arab television networks repeatedly broadcast images of the demonstrations, which included a scene in which a statue of Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, was toppled in Dara'a's main square. In another scene, crowds torched offices of the ruling Baath Party.

In another, hundreds took cover in the face of machine-gun fire in Sanamein, where the casualty figures were the highest in the country over the weekend. Yesterday the unrest resumed in Latakia, Dara'a and Tafas, near Dara'a.

Assad convened the leadership of his Baath Party to consider the steps to take to quell the unrest. Hezbollah's Al-Manar television in Lebanon reported that a shake-up of the Syrian cabinet was one of the moves being debated, along with the release of political prisoners.

It is difficult to assess where the opposition is headed. As in other Arab countries that have seen unrest in recent months, the protesters in Syria have no recognized leadership or organizational infrastructure. The opposition is also not being led by groups that have always been seen as hostile to the regime, such as the Kurds and Islamic extremists.

Syrian security forces had a tough time dealing with the widespread outbreaks of protest. Unlike recent events elsewhere in the Arab world such as in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the relatively small numbers of demonstrators in the major cities shows that in some sense, the Syrian opposition has not reached a point of no return.

The scope of the weekend's demonstrations is not entirely clear, but in Syria's major cities, unlike in Dara'a, the numbers apparently have not approached what was seen in Tunis, Benghazi and Cairo in recent months. The demonstrations Friday centered on protests against the recent deaths in Dara'a rather than on demands to remove Assad's regime from power.

On the other hand, the unrest in Syria may be a first step on the path toward deposing the Syrian leader. The new developments are virtually unprecedented; until two weeks ago, the regime had not been faced with open protest other than in the Kurdish region in the north.

If Assad continues to order the use of force against demonstrators, this will probably swell the ranks of protest around the country. Assad's response to the unrest has been limited to symbolic gestures such as the release of 260 Kurdish and Islamic prisoners.

This recalled similar gestures by the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt before they were deposed. The week will be critical for the Syrian president.