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Until the outbreak of widespread protests in the city of Daraa in southern Syria on March 18, organised public action for radical political reform in the country was halting and hesitant. Calls for days of anger, such as those witnessed in Egypt, began to be made on Facebook pages at the end of January, but they elicited little response. Any action before the mass protests in Daraa was only sporadic and spontaneous.The protesters are calling for the regime to take concrete steps towards introducing greater freedoms for the country's citizens, including the release of political prisoners and the lifting of the state of emergency that has been in effect since 1963.In response to a demonstration by the families of political detainees on March 15, the state security services arrested 36

An undercurrent of official discourse over a long period of time has been the fragility of the Syrian social fabric [AFP]

Until the outbreak of widespread protests in the city of Daraa in southern Syria on March 18, organised public action for radical political reform in the country was halting and hesitant. Calls for days of anger, such as those witnessed in Egypt, began to be made on Facebook pages at the end of January, but they elicited little response. Any action before the mass protests in Daraa was only sporadic and spontaneous.

The protesters are calling for the regime to take concrete steps towards introducing greater freedoms for the country's citizens, including the release of political prisoners and the lifting of the state of emergency that has been in effect since 1963.

In response to a demonstration by the families of political detainees on March 15, the state security services arrested 36 protesters, including a number of prominent civil society actors. This was followed by a new wave of arrests, resulting in the detention of as many as 300 activists.

The current confrontation with the Syrian regime began to escalate as people in Daraa demonstrated following the Friday prayer on March 18 and then held a sit-in at the Al-Omari mosque in Daraa's Old City.

Daraa residents were particularly aggrieved because a number of youths, some as young as 15, had earlier been arrested for writing graffiti calling for the fall of the regime on their school walls. The protesters in Daraa demanded the release of the youths, as well as the release of political detainees and the end of the state of emergency.

In response, the central security forces were deployed and used live ammunition to disperse the protesters. Additionally, the residents who were holding a sit-in in the mosque were attacked by security elements. As a result, tens of unarmed civilians died and countless others were injured.

For a week now, residents of Daraa have been holding demonstrations fuelled by anger at the violence meted out by the security forces. The situation was worsened when the security forces attacked mass funeral processions, causing further fatalities and casualties. 

The protests have now spread to other parts of Syria, including Damascus and its surrounding areas, as well as the cities of Homs, Hama, Aleppo, al-Riqqa, Latakia, where at least 12 people were killed and 150 injured, and Benyas. In all of these locations, the slogans have been common and the demands unified. Syrians are asking for freedom and demanding concrete measures, primarily the release of all political prisoners and the ending of the state of emergency. In addition, they have a host of social and economic demands focused on bringing an end to the economic privileges granted to a few individuals close to the ruling regime.

The spectre of Iraq

In the context of these legitimate and pressing demands for political transformation, Syrians find themselves facing a number of dilemmas. The first has to do with the imperative of maintaining a unified front so as not to allow the ghost of religious or ethnic communalism to be conjured up.

On one hand, they are emboldened by the revolutionary events in other Arab countries. These have sensitised them to the power of collective popular action in the face of repressive forces. On the other hand, they are cognisant that their unified position and consensus on the need for political change can be undermined through tactics and strategies that manipulate their religious and ethnic diversity to sow divisions among them with the aim of causing civil strife.

An undercurrent of official discourse over a long period of time has been the fragility of the Syrian social fabric and the possibility that, if left to their own devices, Syrians will retrench to narrow and communally-based identities and their national unity would be broken.

The spectre of the break-up of Iraq and of the fragmentation of its polity along sectarian and ethnic lines haunts the imagination of many Syrians. In a sense, Syrians have been constrained in expressing opposition to the regime's policies and its style of rule by their own commitment to maintaining the cohesion and unity of their national community. It is their desire to protect and defend this unity that has put breaks on their public engagement to challenge the authoritarian policies in place. As the spark of collective action has been ignited, they have now to proceed cautiously so as to prevent any attempt to simulate communal violence.

The second dilemma which Syrians face has to do with the relations with outside, and in particular Western, powers. As a people whose majority has preserved a strong sense of Arab identity and who experience continued Israeli occupation of parts of their national territory, Syrians are bound by the ethos of resistance against that occupation and by solidarity with the Palestinians in their struggle against a common enemy.

Given the failure of the international community to enforce UN resolutions concerning the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and given, also, the unconditional US support for Israel, Syrians are rightly wary of any Western intervention in their affairs, even if it ostensibly supported the opposition's demands.

Indeed, there is a clear agreement among a broad spectrum of Syrian political actors that they solely have the responsibility to bring about the desired change and that any external meddling would not only undermine their efforts but would have dangerous consequences.

Further, they are aware of the opportunism that has characterised the position of a number of Western countries with respect to the Syrian regime, shoring it up at its moments of weakness with the objective of upholding and advancing their idea of stability and order in the region. As such, Syrians do not wish to be pawns in the strategic games of regional or international powers. Yet, they need external support in the form of moral solidarity and media presence to provide an independent account of their face-off with state security forces.

It is under the constraints that these dilemmas pose to them that Syrians must pursue their quest for liberty and for overturning the authoritarian forms of government that have ruled them for so long.

For their part, they must guard their unity, insist on their right to peaceful protest and ward off any externally-driven interference in their movement for change.

In return, the Syrian leadership has to grasp the historical opportunity that presents itself today, show that it is capable of dialogue and is truly committed to taking the immediate steps required to build the citizens' confidence and trust. The release of all political prisoners and the lifting of the state of emergency are necessary measures in the process of political transformation which cannot be delayed any further.

Salwa Ismail is a professor of politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera