There's an interesting dynamic to keep an eye on in Syria right now. In the wake of President Bashar al-Assad's June 20 speech at Damascus University, the regime appears to be scaling back its heavy-handed response to the country's nearly fourth-month uprising. It's permitted foreign journalists to return to Damascus and even attend anti-government protests, allowed some of the country's most prominent dissidents to hold a conference, scheduled a "national dialogue" for July, withdrawn its forces from Syria's fourth-largest city, Hama, and other flashpoints, and acknowledged, in interviews and in state media, that "peaceful protesters" are actually protesting and voicing "legitimate demands," though officials still maintain that extremists are hijacking those demands and must be dealt with by force.
To be sure, this softening stance comes with restrictions. The foreign journalists, for example, are escorted by government "minders" and barred from leaving Damascus, and the opposition conference didn't include opposition parties or protest organizers. Some analysts and activists are also cynical about the motivations behind the government's recent actions. The regime may simply want foreign journalists in town so it can best the opposition in a propaganda war, for instance, and may be pulling its troops out of restive locations because its forces are simply stretched too thin. What's more, the regime is reportedly still cracking down violently on demonstrators, if perhaps not on the same scale that it once did. Security forces killed eleven people today across the country, according to Al Jazeera.
Yet even as the regime pivots to reform, the protests appear to be getting bigger and the opposition more organized. Anti-government activists established a "national coordination committee" on Thursday, the same day that Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital and second-largest city, experienced its first major clashes between protesters and security forces. On Friday, Hama, now free of government troops, witnessed what Al Jazeera is calling the "largest anti-regime protest yet filmed and published." An activist tells Al Jazeera that as many as 300,000 people gathered in a central square demanding the fall of the regime (in 1982, Bashar al-Assad's father quashed an Islamic revolt in the predominantly Sunni Muslim city, killing as many as 20,000 people, according to AFP). That 300,000 number may be inflated (AFP estimates that half a million people in total took to Syria's streets today), but the incredible footage leaves no doubt that the crowd was pretty large:
How should we interpret the emerging dynamic in the country? Anthony Shadid at The New York Times writes that while "diplomats speak of a stalemate, as neither protesters nor officials seem capable of mustering the strength to end the struggle on their terms," the protesters, in Hama in particular, "have demonstrated a resilience that may prove impossible to break." Hama, in fact, is now drawing comparisons to the opposition strongholds of Tahrir Square in Egypt and Benghazi in Libya. But "despite the scenes in Hama," Shadid adds, "the government still draws on substantial support, particularly among minorities, the middle class and the business elite."
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tells The Financial Times that he's skeptical about the Assad regime actually implementing reforms. While officials are experimenting with a "political solution" after their "security solution" failed, he explains, "they can't reform the regime and hand over power to the majority. It would mean getting rid of the whole regime and they just won't do it." In fact, scrapping the whole regime--and nothing short of it--may be just what the protesters want. It's "not clear whether any proposal that allows Mr Assad and his powerful brother Maher, who has led the military response, to stay in power could be accepted by protesters on the streets," The Telegraph's Richard Spencer writes.