Another Friday, another day of demonstrations across Syria.
But unlike in previous weeks, the death toll was significantly lower (it has been falling week-on-week since April). Reports of six deaths make this the quietest Friday since March. It came a day after the president’s spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban promised an opposition leader that the security services would not fire on protestors. As I said on Thursday, the real test would be whether the authorities stuck to that. Surprisingly, in most cases they did.
After the protests, Shaaban admitted the protestors were unarmed, in contrast to recent accusations of armed gangs. She told the Washington Post:
Protesters went to the streets around the country and protested by peaceful means.
State TV seems to have had a slight change of heart too, airing footage of some of the demonstrations, and acknowledging that the protestors were calling for “freedom”.
Sami Moubayed, an independent journalist and academic who is considered relatively pro-regime also called for an end to the killings and immediate reforms. That in itself is a telling development.
The reforms needed include ending one-party rule, clamping down on corruption, releasing political prisoners, starting a national dialogue, and doing away with Article 8, which designates the ruling Ba’ath Party as “leader of state and society”.
To do that, however, the violence must end and the reforms need to start immediately. Ending demonstrations with no reforms will simply bring Syria back to square one. Real reforms while demonstrations are still mushrooming in different parts of Syria, will also not work. No reforms whatsoever will be catastrophic for Syria, both internally and within the international community – and nobody knows that better than the Syrians themselves.
Shaaban says a national dialogue is under way and will continue next week. Some opposition leaders are taking part including Louay al-Husein (no doubt some expat rabble-rousers will stop at nothing less than state collapse, refusing any attempts at solving this peacefully).
All of this is a cause for guarded optimism.
But there is still a long way to go. The UN says at least 700 people have died in the violence. The Red Cross says hundreds, possibly thousands of people are still being detained. Journalists are still not allowed into the country. And the 3G mobile phone data network is still switched off across the whole of Syria.