March 16's beatings, which were more severe than those used to break up the vigil on Feb. 23, may signal a new zero-tolerance approach by the government. And that would mark a dangerous course for the regime.
"Such a reaction only makes us more angry," said one civil society activist who asked not to be named. "It is further humiliation of an already humiliated population. How can you talk of reforms and at the same time beat us and treat us as stupid?"
Reforms may be the wiser path to pursue, but the Assad regime faces a daunting task in assuaging its citizens' economic grievances -- let alone their political gripes. The country suffers from double-digit unemployment and GDP growth that appears too sluggish to improve the lot of its rapidly growing population. To make matters worse, a years-long drought in the north has been disastrous for the country's beleaguered farmers.
Nobody in Syria is sure what will happen next. And there are still sound reasons to believe the protests are one-off events. The core reasons Syrians have stayed quiescent remain: tight control by the security forces, worries of sectarian fallout in the absence of a strongman, and, in many quarters, a fondness for Assad, whom many see as a reformer.
The bloody events in Libya have also scared the population. Remembering what happened to the city of Hama in 1982, when Bashar's father brutally suppressed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrians fear the response to any unrest here will be similar to that of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi: a violent and sustained bid to cling to power.
"There is no doubt the regime will resort to anything to stay in power," said Nour. "When Hafez al-Assad died there were tanks on the street, and there are rumors this is happening again. Any uprising will not be dealt with gently."
But on the ground, there is a feeling that the fear barrier is being broken. Activists who dared not speak their name have piped up. Others meet more openly with diplomats than they dared before. While many Syrians are nervous, others in Damascus's smart cafes and streets discuss what the future holds more boldly. On Tuesday evening, one cafe turned on Orient TV, an independent Dubai-based channel, to watch coverage of the protests, before quickly switching back to Rotana TV music videos.
Further demonstrations -- and bigger, more diverse ones -- will be a key sign of the protests' staying power. Thus far, Syria's minorities have been hesitant: Christians have traditionally feared upheaval, while the Kurds have largely focused on their own dreams of independence. But on the Kurdish new year of Nowruz, which arrives on March 21, a number of Syria's Kurdish parties have pledged to raise the national flag rather than the Kurdish standard.
A "you first" mentality has taken hold in Damascus. If nobody moves, Syria may remain quiet. But if a few brave souls are willing to risk the inevitable government crackdown, it will become clear just how deep the desire for change runs in Syria.