Assad launches reforms as new Syria protests planned
DAMASCUS – Syrian authorities on Thursday announced a raft of measures aimed at meeting protesters’ demands as opposition movements ready for more rallies across the country after Friday Muslim prayers.
“Our date is Friday, from all houses, all places of worship, every citizen and every free man, to all squares, for a free Syria,” said a statement posted Thursday on Facebook group The Syria Revolution 2011.
The group, which remains anonymous, has been a driving force behind protests which erupted on March 15 and have taken root in the tribal region of Daraa, south of the capital, and the multi-religious coastal city of Latakia.
President Bashar al-Assad is facing domestic pressure unprecedented in his 11-year rule as protests demanding greater freedoms in the country, which has been in a state of emergency for close to 50 years, enter their third week.
But the 45-year-old leader failed to announce the widely anticipated end of a state of emergency in his speech Wednesday — his first appearance since the dissent broke out.
State-run news agency SANA reported however Thursday a string of reform measures, including plans to tackle the plight of some 300,000 Kurds who have been denied Syrian citizenship for close to half a century.
Assad has also ordered an immediate investigation into the Daraa and Latakia killings and the formation of a committee to draft new laws on national security and counter-terrorism, SANA said.
The committee will “pave the way for ending the state of emergency” and should complete its work by April 25, according to the news agency.
Gunfire broke out in Latakia immediately after Assad’s speech Wednesday, with conflicting reports of the source of the shooting and unconfirmed reports of casualties.
Emboldened by the wave of dissent that has rocked the Arab world since December, demonstrators have defied the state of emergency, which has been in place since the Baath party seized power in 1963, with street gatherings in the south and north, mainly after Friday prayers.
While small protests initially surfaced in the capital Damascus, they were quickly contained by Syria’s renowned security forces.
But the protests have turned increasingly violent, with rights activists estimating that more than 130 people were killed in clashes with security forces, mainly in Daraa and Latakia. Officials put the death toll at closer to 30.
Assad has blamed Syria’s “enemies” for the unrest, saying they were testing Syria’s unity and taking advantage of the needs of the people to incite division, in a country that has long prided itself on coexistence in a region torn by sectarian strife.
“This conspiracy is different in shape and timing from what is going on in the Arab world,” he said. “Syria is not isolated from the region… but we are not a copy of other countries.”
Key Assad aide Buthaina Shaaban had told AFP on Sunday that the government intended to lift the state of emergency, but she could not say when.
Syria’s emergency laws authorise the arrest and interrogation of any individual and restrict gatherings and movement.
Assad also said talks were underway on new laws on the media and political pluralism but did not give details on the timeframe.
His address has failed to impress rights groups, who said the president missed a golden opportunity to improve the Baath-ruled country’s human rights record.
Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Philip Luther said Assad “should be addressing the real problem — which is that his security forces have been firing live ammunition on protesters, killing dozens over the last month.”
Syrian authorities have accused Muslim fundamentalists of seeking to incite sectarian-based unrest in Syria by pushing peaceful protests into violence.
Washington has said Assad’s speech “fell short”, while Republican Senator John McCain and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman urged US President Barack Obama to back the opposition against Assad.
Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri’s government tendered its resignation on Tuesday and a new cabinet is expected to be announced in days.