Bashar Assad’s bad day

It's Friday, and once again there were major protests throughout Syria. Reuters reported at least 16 people were killed, including a teenage boy. Protests have become a weekly occurrence, and the numbers being reported are startling. Al Jazeera cites an eyewitness claiming 150,000 people came out in Hama, the country's fourth largest city and the site of a massacre in 1982 that left at least 10,000 dead.  If Al Jazeera's number is accurate, that would mean almost a quarter of the city's population was out in the streets.

The Syrian regime's response today has also been dramatic. Tanks and armored personnel carriers swept into two key towns in the north-- places that sit on the road linking Damascus and Aleppo. The government called it a "limited military operation" to restore order.

Here's video of the large crowds in Hama:

And video of protesters setting fire to the Russian and Iranian flags:

A couple of key things to watch:

Turkey's shift

Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been a steady ally of Assad's government. But the relationship has cooled and might be heading for a breaking point, as thousands of Syrian refugees continue to flood into Turkey. Last week, Erdogan called Syria's crackdown "savagery."

"Syria had two friends. One was Erdogan and the other is the Iranians," Henri Barkey, a Turkey scholar at Lehigh University told Passport. "They have lost Erdogan. Erdogan tried to convince Bashar from the beginning to reform, lift the state of emergency, release political prisoners, but Bashar didn't listen to him."

Barkey said the Turks feel slighted. They threw the Syrian regime a lifeline at a time when it was being pressured by the Europeans and the Americans, and Erdogan expected to have more of a say with Assad now.

So what does this all mean?

According to Barkey, if the United States plays its cards right, there's an opportunity to let the Turks take the lead in dealing with Syria and possibly even do what Washington probably won't be able to-- persuade the Russians to back a U.N. Security Council Resolution against Syria that actually has teeth. That's far from certain, but Erdogan, who prides himself on being at the forefront of history, might soon be ready to take up that charge.

The end of Rami Makhlouf?

The Syrian business tycoon and cousin of Assad publicly "resigned" on state TV late Thursday from his various business ventures, including as head of the country's main cell phone company. The fact that the regime is willing to toss out someone seen as especially close to Assad is an indication it understands it needs to do more than it's been doing, said Rob Malley a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group. The move can be seen as a gesture to the population, which overwhelmingly wanted Makhlouf gone.  

Makhlouf's image was tarnished within Syria after an interview with the New York Times last month in which he said the government would fight to the end to survive and that "if there is no stability here, there's no way there will be stability in Israel."  

The Jolie Factor

Hollywood do-gooder Angelina Jolie met with Syrian refugees in Turkey today. Though there are fewer than 10,000 of them so far, Jolie could help their plight become a cause célèbre and push governments to take stronger action against the Syrian regime. Look for an increase in press coverage of the refugee crisis in the wake of her visit. Though the scale is much lower than other refugee crises around the world, sympathy for the Syrians fighting inside the country and those fleeing from the conflict will likely grow. A crisis needs a compelling narrative to get attention. And a crisis needs the world's attention to move the needle of world powers.

All in all, it's been a bad day for Bashar Assad.


Nigeria's first suicide bomber?

At 10:55 a.m. this morning, smoke billowed out of the parking lot of Nigeria's police headquarters in downtown Abuja. A bomb went off seconds earlier, lighting cars on fire and killing dozens. The building sits on one of the main roads near the presidential palace, just on the way to one of nicest areas in the capital city, Asokoro. If the bomb proves intention, which seems likely given everything we've learned so far, this was a suicide bomber -- the first in Nigeria.

The now-infamous Islamist group Boko Haram is the likely culprit. Local media 234Next is reporting that the group issued a statement in Hausa, the language spoken in Nigeria's north, claiming that its operatives have just returned from Somalia. The group also sent a warning letter to a newspaper in their home city of Maidugari calling for citizens in Abuja to "restrict their movements." Throughout the last several months, bomb attacks in the north of the country have grown more prevalent. And neither is this the first one in the capital city; a particularly nasty one went off last October on the country's 50th anniversary of independence.

If this is Boko Haram, it's no accident that the police where the target; Boko Haram likely still has a vendetta for the death of its leader, which Nigerian security forces killed in a nasty shoot out in 2009. Since then, the group has had a nasty relationship with the security forces, and they have been targeting their local stations in the north for the last week. For months, they have knocked off officers here and there, for example when they attacked a police checkpoint in January.

More broadly, the police force is symbolic of everything that Boko Haram wants to "cleanse" from Nigerian society. Many scholars believe that Boko Haram is an extreme expression of grievances felt throughout Nigeria, and particularly in the North. The complaints have everything to do with poor government: politicians are corrupt,public services are non-existent, and the economy seems to rise and fall on patronage given to the kin of those in power. The police are a particular source of anger; they often take bribes, use excessive violence, and use shaming and other socially destructive techniques to detain alleged criminals. This has been widely documented, including most recently by Human Rights Watch.

In short, every expression of the Nigerian state that the average citizen encounters is somehow broken. Seeing no other outlet, many in the north started calling for a religious solution; witness the imposition of Sharia law in the region a decade ago. When even that didn't restore order to the state, groups like Boko Haram emerged, calling for an end to all Western institutions (their name means "education is forbidden") and the imposition of total Islamic rule. Their means are crude, violent, and place them on par with any other terrorist group -- which apparently is their goal if Boko Haram really is training in Somalia. They are an aberration of Nigerian society. But that doesn't mean that what they come from isn't real.

Nigeria has a freshly elected government with a president, Goodluck Jonathan, from the south. The patronage of a northern president will be missing in the coming months, meaning that the means for real political progress (instead of the usual bandaging with handouts) will be needed to gain the region's trust. (This loss of patronage is certainly one reason that tensions in the north have escalated; when you're destitute and your one lifeline disappears, it's rough.) In the meantime, this attack is a wake up call of how high the stakes are. Local problems aren't staying local anymore.