DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian President Bashar Assad wavered between cracking down and compromising Monday in one of the Middle East's most authoritarian and anti-Western nations as thousands of protesters in a southern city defied security forces who fired tear gas to disperse them.
The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country of 23 million people, could have implications well beyond the country's borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.
"Nobody has an interest in Syria going aflame," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "Syrian instability has the potential of destabilizing the entire region."
The southern city of Daraa has become the flash point for 10 days of antigovernment protests in a country that has a history of crushing dissent. At least 61 people have been killed since March 18, according to Human Rights Watch.
Touched off by the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled antigovernment graffiti on a wall in Daraa, the protests exploded nationwide on Friday. Security forces opened fire in at least six locations around the country, including the capital, Damascus, and the main port of Latakia.
Assad, 45, is now facing down the most serious threat to his family's four decades of authoritarian rule. The government has tried to calm the situation with concessions. Assad is expected to address the nation as early as today to announce he is lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.
But while Syrians await the rumored announcement, security forces are trying to crush the unrest. Troops fired tear gas on a crowd of about 4,000 people in Daraa who were calling for more political freedoms Monday, witnesses said. They also fired live ammunition in the air to disperse the crowd.
Elsewhere in Syria, armed groups appeared to be facing off and threatening an escalation in violence in Latakia. Residents were taking up weapons and manning their own checkpoints to guard against what they say are unknown gunmen roaming the streets carrying sticks and hunting rifles, witnesses said Monday. It was not clear whether the gunmen were working for the government.
JOURNALISTS FREED: The Reuters news agency said Monday that two of its journalists detained by Syrian authorities had been released. It said TV producer Ayat Basma and cameraman Ezzat Baltaji had left Syria after being detained Saturday.