In late January, as popular protests shook pro-American regimes in the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad boasted to the Wall Street Journal that he had nothing to fear. Assad argued that unlike the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, he did not seek to please the United States and his foreign policy choices made him more “closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” But by mid-March, protests erupted in Daraa, a southern town near the border with Jordan that has suffered under corrupt officials and economic neglect by the central government. Like other protests convulsing the Arab world, these demonstrations were driven by local grievances and not concerns about Syria's foreign policy.
On March 6 security forces in Daraa arrested a group of teenagers who had scrawled graffiti on a wall—a phrase they had seen used by the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want the fall of the regime.” The security forces probably thought nothing of the arrests; it was a reflex move by low-level members of an autocratic regime that has been in power for nearly forty-one years. But this incident set off the most serious challenge to the Baathist regime since the 1980s. Within a week of the arrests, large protests erupted in Daraa, which led to clashes with security forces and dozens of casualties. Assad and his advisers botched the initial response: the president failed to offer condolences to the families of those killed or to visit Daraa, setting off a new round of protests, which spread to other parts of Syria. As the crackdown intensified, demonstrators also shifted their rhetoric from demands for “freedom” and “dignity”—and an end to abuses by the security forces—to calls for Assad's overthrow.