x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Damascus faces a new spring of challenges

When protesters chanting "No more fear!" marched through the streets of Deraa last week, it signalled the most direct challenge to the Syrian regime in decades.

When protesters chanting "No more fear!" marched through the streets of Deraa last week, it signalled the most direct challenge to the Syrian regime in decades.

Years of strongman rule, sanctioned by an emergency law and enforced by the state security apparatus, created an atmosphere of repression that has haunted Syrians for decades. Indeed, the economic, social and political reforms that were openly debated in salons and forums during the so-called "Damascus Spring" after Hafiz al Assad's death 10 years ago have yet to blossom. Instead, corruption continues to flourish, thousands of political prisoners remain behind bars, and Syria is no closer to satisfying the demands of its people.

But while quashing dissent remains the first option of an increasingly anxious regime, the fear barrier has been broken. Long-held Kurdish grievances and protests led by young people, inspired by Egypt and Tunisia, sparked a renewed round of demonstrations this month. Pro-democracy graffiti, chants against the Baath party and marches across the country have marked a new era of confrontation between Syria's population and the Assad leadership.

And yet, rather than promise to speed up the reforms he has long trumpeted, President Bashar al Assad has fallen back on the same repressive tactics that kept his father in power. Arguing that "we will have to wait for the next generation to bring reform", Mr Assad seems to think that change can come slowly.

Some Syrians agree, worrying the country risks fatal instability. "We do not want another Iraq" was a sentiment echoed in the streets of Damascus on Friday. It's the same bogeyman the regime has paraded during times of upheaval, and for a good reason - it still holds sway amon some.

Increasingly, however, it seems that Mr Assad and the ruling Baath party have little choice but to change, and fast. Isolated by sanctions and closed off to much of the world, Syria's population is acutely aware of what has passed them by. Inspired by ongoing protests in the region, the thread of discontent continues to tighten its grip on the country.

Indeed, lying amid the torched remains of a Baath party office in Deraa is the party's slogan: "God, Syria, Bashar - that's it." As protesters marched through Damascus last week, they claimed the phrase as their own, sending a clear message to the regime: "God, Syria, freedom - that's it."