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 with a population of 23 million, could have implications well beyond the country's borders, given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front-line state opposing 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 -- parched by drought, rural and impoverished -- has become the flash point for 10 days of anti-government protests in a country that has a history of brutally 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 anti-government graffiti on a wall in Daraa, the protests exploded nationwide Friday. Security forces launched a swift crackdown, opening fire in at least six locations across the country -- including the capital, Damascus, and the country's main port of Latakia.
Assad, 45, is now facing down the most serious threat to his family's four decades of authoritarian rule in this predominantly Sunni country, which is ruled by minority Alawites.
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 some 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 the country's main port city of 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.
International and Arab reaction to the violence in Syria has been relatively subdued, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested the United State would not be willing to get involved in Syria.
She took pains to say this week that Assad is a "different leader" than Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and that many members of Congress who have visited the country "believe he's a reformer."