THE president of Syria is in a fix. Bashar Assad must decide whether to copy the tactics of Hosni Mubarak, who tried too late to appease the protesters, or those of Muammar Qaddafi, who killed many hundreds of his people when they turned against him. But he is swinging between those two poles. Neither course is doing him much good. The killing of at least 15 people in the early hours of April 19th in Homs, the country’s third city after Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, may have marked a turning point. Mr Assad’s grip looks increasingly weak.
His first attempt at dampening dissent by promising reform, in an address to parliament on March 30th, was a failure, because his belated offer seemed vague and haughtily insincere. On April 16th he tried again, this time with a speech to government insiders. He said citizens needed dignity. He acknowledged Syria’s economic woes and spared his audience his usual railing against foreign conspiracies. He sounded more sincere (and more desperate) than before. He may even have been trying to signal a change of tack. But the people on the street no longer take much notice. The protests in Homs got going immediately after his second speech.
He is also taking a risk by blaming conservative Sunnis for the recent troubles, linking them to militant Islamists such as al-Qaeda. “Their terrorist activities will not be tolerated,” say government spokesmen. Such charges raise the spectre of the 1980s, when a revolt by the Muslim Brothers was ruthlessly suppressed, leaving around 20,000 dead. Mr Assad may not be as brutal as his father, Hafez Assad, who oversaw that wave of repression—and survived. Yet if he is not, his days in charge may be numbered.