When the first flags of what is now termed the Arab dawn appeared over Tunisia, there were scant expectations that the popular uprisings would spread so rapidly eastwards. But the notion that within three months even Syria would be rocked by grassroots protest was low on anyone's scale of probability. President Bashar al-Assad was regarded as popular by the standards of the region, even as he ruled with a rod of iron only a little more yielding than his father's.
Over the past two weeks, however, demonstrations have erupted in several parts of the country. The most recent disturbances took place in the port of Latakia in the north, where the government confirmed yesterday that 12 people had been killed and more than 200 injured, including members of the security forces. Troops have reportedly been dispatched to restore order. In conclusive proof that these were protests against the regime, the offices of the ruling Baath party were set on fire. In the southern city of Deraa, a statue of the late President Hafez al-Assad was toppled and people brandished placards calling for the downfall of the regime. There have been reports, too, of demonstrations being broken up in Damascus.
Four years ago, when the so-called Cedar Revolution swept Lebanon, precipitating the withdrawal of Syrian troops, many expected that the Syrians would soon be back, or would simply reassert their influence from their side of the border. Now it appears that the influence – this time of political pluralism – may be moving the other way. It is probably not coincidence that the first protests took place in cities close to the Jordanian border.
These are early days, even judged by the accelerated pace of recent events across the region. Officials are speaking of concessions to be offered by the regime – including an end to the 48-year-old state of emergency, a referendum on constitutional changes, and the freeing of political prisoners. In other times, even hinting at such changes all at once would be akin to an internal revolution. Today, it is by no means certain that they would be enough to keep even as seemingly secure a leader as Mr Assad in power.