Syria protests - AP - Mar. 15, 2011
Syrians protesters opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad regime gathering outside the Syrian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, March 15, 2011. Photo by AP
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About 10,000 Syrian police officers and soldiers sealed off the city of Daraa yesterday, after security forces killed at least five protesters there. The unfolding events offered the first sign that the Arab world's pro-democracy push is seeping into one of the region's most repressive countries.

Residents were being allowed to leave the southwestern city of Daraa but not enter it yesterday, said prominent Syrian rights activist Mazen Darwish. The cordon seemed aimed at choking off any spread of unrest after Friday's clashes and yesterday's emotional funeral processions for the dead.

Syrian security forces launched a harsh crackdown on Friday's demonstrations, which were calling for political freedoms. Protests took place in at least five cities around the country, including the capital of Damascus.

The Syrian media did not report the stormy demonstrations yesterday. The state television instead broadcast concerts and talk shows, while the printed media expanded on the president's decision to reduce compulsory military service from 21 to 18 months. But opposition websites and satellite television channels did report the massive protests and clashes.

While Facebook is not used widely in Syria - 0.1 percent of the population, as compared to 0.5 percent in Yemen and 10 percent in Saudi Arabia - demonstrators are still "mobilized" swiftly by word of mouth and cellular phones.

The uprising in Syria has no broad public basis at the moment and is headed mainly by a small group of intellectuals who began public activity during President Bashar Assad's first year in office 11 years ago, when public gatherings and debates on reforms were allowed for a brief period.

Very soon, however, political activists were arrested or began to leave the country voluntarily.

Contrary to what Assad has boasted, his country is not immune to the cries for change that have already toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. But Syria's leadership, like that of Libya or Yemen, has no intention of relinquishing power. The question is how quickly the security forces will act, considering the issue involves not only giving up power in Syria, but potentially losing control in Lebanon.