Editor's Note: For a strong analysis of the unfolding situation in Syria, check out Joshua Landis' piece over at Time.com. Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and writes the blog Syria Comment. An excerpt is below.
By Joshua Landis for Time.com
The Baathist regime that has ruled Syria for 48 years is on the ropes. Even President Bashar al-Assad himself seems to have been shocked by the level of violence used by Syria's security forces to suppress demonstrations that began a week ago, and on Thursday afternoon his office announced unprecedented concessions to popular demands. But the question of whether those concessions assuage protesters' concerns or prove to be too little too late may be answered on the streets after Friday prayers.
The protests began a week ago in the dusty agricultural town of Dara'a, near the border with Jordan, over the arrests of high school students for scrawling antigovernment graffiti. Those demonstrations quickly spun out of control, with thousands joining in, inspired by the wave of revolutions that have rocked the Arab world, to demand political freedoms and an end to emergency rule and corruption. The government responded brutally, killing over 30 demonstrators and wounding many more, according to activists. Gruesome videos of the crackdown, disseminated via the Internet in recent days, have enraged Syrians from one end of the country to the other.
On Thursday, the regime began to try a different tack, with Assad's spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban offering the President's condolences to the people of Dara'a and acknowledging their "legitimate" demands, even as she insisted that reports of the scale of protests and the number of casualties had been exaggerated. Oddly, the President has himself not appeared on TV since Syria's political troubles began, apparently hoping to protect himself from criticism. But Shaaban insisted that Assad was completely against the use of live fire in suppressing the demonstrations. She emphasized that she had been present in the room when the President ordered the security agencies to refrain from shooting at protesters — "not one bullet."
But the only promised concessions that can be taken to the bank are pay rises for state employees of up to 30%, and the release of all activists arrested in the past weeks. Other reforms, which the regime undertook to study, are job creation, press freedom, permitting the formation of opposition parties and lifting emergency law. Should they be implemented, those changes would be nothing short of revolutionary. But many activists have already dismissed Assad's offer as a stalling tactic to make it through the next few days of funerals and, most importantly, Friday prayers. The opposition has called for Syrians to assemble in large numbers in mosques for a day of "dignity" and demonstrations.
In order to mount a serious challenge to the regime's iron grip on power, opposition activists will have to move their protest actions beyond Dara'a and its surrounding villages, and extend it to the major cities. Their attempt to do so presents the country with a choice of great consequence: they must decide if Syria is more like Egypt and Tunisia, where the people achieved sufficient unity to peacefully oust their rulers, or whether Syria is more like Iraq and Lebanon, which slipped into civil war and endless factionalism.
Read the rest of the analysis over at Time.com.