The situation in Syria seems to be on a knife’s edge. Perhaps 80 protesters were killed
by security forces during massive demonstrations yesterday. Checkpoints have gone up around all major cities, including Aleppo, Homs and Hama and of course Damascus. A friend who has been visiting
the country this week says the situation is "pretty tense with police all around and no one, I mean almost no one on the streets. Taxis are not operating and there are no buses between
cities." The road south from Damascus to Deraa is heavily guarded to prevent the protesters moving from one city to the next.
The key problem for Bashri al-Assad’s regime is that the protests have now spread to the middle classes and the government is constantly one step behind. As my friend remarks: "Each time it
misses the opportunity to take the initiative and each time they get worse." Like Egypt, Syria is now suffering from a slump in tourism. People have cancelled their trips and businesses
are idle. This could push things either way: towards calm as people worry about their livelihoods or towards conflict, as unemployed youths take to the streets and demand change.
The situation is posing a number of questions for the British government. The Syrian regime, like all dictatorships, is blaming foreign powers for the protests. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, however,
people seem more inclined to believe them. External interference may therefore be counterproductive.
Finally, there seems to be a disagreement at the heart of the British establishment about the Syrian president. Bashir al-Assad has been president for 11 years, having inherited the post on the
death in 2000 of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for the previous 30 years. Some senior officials think he is a "decent-enough guy" controlled by a self-serving elite he
cannot overrule. Others think this argument overdone, believing that the Syrian leader’s trick is to pretend to be weak. It is certainly true that many British leaders have thought they could turn
the Assads, only to be frustrated.
Democratic change in Syria will benefit the people and have a positive impact on the region, removing a key ally of Iran and improving the prospects of peace with Israel and less interference in
Lebanon. The risk, however, is that the road to democracy will be doused with blood.