Taking inspiration from the rapid unraveling of the regime in Libya, thousands of Syrians poured into the streets and taunted President Bashar al-Assad with shouts that his family’s 40-year dynasty will be the next dictatorship to crumble.
Assad, who has tried in vain to crush the 5-month-old revolt, appears increasingly out of touch as he refuses to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of people demanding his ouster, analysts say. Instead, he blames the unrest on Islamic extremists and thugs.
But many observers say Assad should heed the lessons of Libya.
“Qaddafi is gone; now it’s your turn, Bashar!” protesters shouted Monday in several cities across the country, hours after Assad dismissed calls to step down during an interview on state TV. Security forces opened fire in the central city of Homs, killing at least one person.
“Leaders should know that they will be able to remain in power as long as they remain sensitive to the demands of the people,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, according to Turkey’s Anatolia news agency.
Turkey, a former close ally of Syria and an important trade partner, has grown increasingly frustrated with Damascus over its deadly crackdown. The violence has left Syria facing the most serious international isolation in decades, with widespread calls for Assad to step down.
Human rights groups say more than 2,000 people - most of them unarmed protesters - have been killed in the government’s crackdown on the uprising.
Britain’s Defense Secretary Liam Fox told BBC radio that Assad would “be thinking again in light of what has happened in Tripoli overnight.”
“There is an unavoidable change in the area - and I think the message to those in that region is that if you do not allow change to be a process it can become an event,” he said.
Syria presented a different case than other Arab nations swept by unrest this year.
A military intervention has been all but ruled out, given the quagmire in Libya and the lack of any strong opposition leader in Syria to rally behind. The U.S. and other nations have little leverage to threaten further isolation or economic punishment of Assad’s pro-Iranian regime.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland dismissed the idea of arming the Syrian rebels. “I don’t think anybody thinks that more guns into Syria is going to be the right answer right now,” she said. “The Syrians themselves don’t want that. So that’s why our focus has been on political and economic pressure.”
With neither side in the conflict showing any signs of backing down, many fear a drawn-out and bloody stalemate.
“What is so shocking is that the Syrian people have been really resilient, determined to continue to fight the regime for almost half a year and this is something, I believe, (Assad) did not count on,” said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst in Jordan.
Assad has had four public appearances since the uprising began in March, the latest one on Sunday night. His remarks have stayed remarkably similar even as the uprising gained momentum, with the president trying to convey a sense of confidence while insisting his security forces were fighting a foreign conspiracy to stir up sectarian strife.
He has also pledged reforms, but the opposition says the promises are empty.
Assad told state-run TV Sunday that he was not worried about security in his country and warned against any Libya-style foreign military intervention.
On Monday, the state news agency said Assad formed a committee to pave the way for the formation of political groups other than his Baath party, which has held a monopoly in Syria for decades. The opposition rejected Assad’s remarks, saying they have lost confidence in his promises of reform while his forces open fire on peaceful protesters.
Also Monday, a witness said several thousand people converged on the main square in Homs known as Clock Square after they heard that a UN humanitarian team was to visit the city. He said security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing one and wounding several others.
“Simply, without any introductions, they started shooting at them,” he said, asking that his name not be used for fear of government reprisals.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized Assad for breaking his pledge last week to halt the violence. “It is troubling that he has not kept his word,” Ban said.
Syria granted a UN team permission to visit some of the centers of the protests and crackdown to assess humanitarian needs, but activists and a Western diplomat have accused the regime of trying to scrub away signs of the crackdown.
In Hama, another central city that has been a hotbed of dissent, pro-regime gunmen fired their guns in celebration after Assad’s appearance, killing two people overnight.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and another activist group called the Local Coordination Committees confirmed the deaths. Both groups cited witness accounts.
In the southern village of Hirak, four people were wounded when security forces opened fire on protesters, according to the observatory.
Also Monday, a UN human rights expert says Arab nations agreed to demand that Syria allow an international probe within its borders to see whether crimes against humanity have been committed.
Jean Ziegler, a member of the UN Human Rights Council’s advisory committee, told The Associated Press that Kuwait will make the demand on behalf of Arab nations.