Unprecedented wave of popular protest hits Syria

Daraa the hotbed of anti-regime protests

DAMASCUS - After Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, a wave of unprecedented anti-regime protests has now hit Syria, a country known for its iron grip on security matters.
"We now live in a new climate, and Syria cannot remain outside the movement" that is sweeping the Middle East, said Burhan Ghalyoun, an Arab studies professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
"The regime is mistaken if it thinks it can settle these problems through repression," Ghalyoun said.
"The security services' old methods will only pour oil on an already burning fire."
Syria, which is still under a 1963 emergency law banning demonstrations, has seen a string of small but unprecedented protests demanding the end of the ruling regime of President Bashar al-Assad for one week now.
Daraa, a southern town that is home to large tribal families, has been the focal point of the rallies, the latest in a string of uprisings against long-running autocratic regimes across the Arab world.
Eleven people were reported killed in a security crackdown on the Daraa demonstrations, including an 11-year-old boy who died after on Monday after inhaling tear gas the day before.
And while the government of Assad, who succeeded his father as Syria's president in 2000, has promised to launch an investigation into the Daraa killings, the protesters seem far from satisfied.
The protests are becoming increasingly heated, with Daraa residents torching the local courthouse this week.
Facebook group Syrian Revolution 2011, which carries an Arabic version of its name that translates as "The Syrian Revolt against Bashar al-Assad," has called for more protests.
The group, which has been key in disseminating videos it says are of the protests and in calling for demonstrations, has attracted some 67,000 supporters.
"The tension is still latent at this point, but the situation is explosive," said Haytham Maleh, a Syrian human rights lawyer who was detained for five months in 2009 for criticising the government.
Like many opposition activists in Syria, Maleh has for years been demanding major reforms.
These include the release of all political prisoners, lifting the emergency law and the annulment of article eight of the constitution, which stipulates that the ruling Baath party is "the leader of state and society."
Added to that are Syria's economic woes: 80 percent of all revenues in the country are "in the hands of a mere handful of people," according to Maleh.
The authorities, who have been closely monitoring the popular revolts that have shaken the Arab world in recent months, announced a series of economic measures aimed at helping the country's poorest.
In January, well before the protests began to surface, the government announced the creation of a national welfare fund with an estimated value of $250 million to aid needy families.
An estimated 14 percent of Syria's 22-million-strong population is affected by poverty. Unemployment is an estimated 22 percent and mainly affects young people.
State-run daily Al-Baath on Tuesday announced a four-million-dollar project to provide Daraa residents with potable water.
And in a bid to improve access to information, authorities in February authorised direct access to popular Internet websites Facebook and YouTube, which had been blocked since 2007.
After a short-lived uprising demanding more freedom that came to be known as the "Damascus Spring" under Assad in 2001, authorities silenced the demands by jailing dozens of intellectuals, teachers and MPs.
"It is difficult to predict Syria's future," said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre.
"The street now dictates the way events will unravel, and this is a complete novelty."