President Bashar al-Assad sought to deflect the greatest challenge to his 11-year rule by mobilizing tens of thousands of Syrians in mass rallies across the country on Tuesday in response to pro-democracy protests.
Assad also accepted the resignation of his government, ahead of a long-awaited speech in which he is expected to lift emergency law which has been in place for nearly half a century since his Baath Party took power in a coup.
Abolishing emergency rule has been a key demand of protests, which erupted nearly two weeks ago and in which more than 60 people have been killed, drawing international condemnation.
But the government-organized show of mass support suggested Assad was seeking to address his people from a position of strength, adopting a strategy to counter unrest that was once unthinkable in this most tightly controlled of Arab states.
Protesters at first had limited their demands to greater freedoms. But, increasingly incensed by a security crackdown on them, especially in the southern city of Deraa where protests first erupted, they later demanded the “downfall of the regime.” (Reuters)
The calls echo those heard during recent Arab uprisings that have toppled autocratic presidents in Tunisia and Egypt and also motivated rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
“In a series of side meetings I also had the chance to discuss a number of issues, including Syria,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after a London meeting of international powers on Libya. “I expressed our strong condemnation of the Syrian government’s brutal repression of demonstrators, in particular the violence and killing of civilians in the hands of security forces,” she added. (Toronto Star)
State television showed people in the Syrian capital Damascus and cities including Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Tartus waving the national flag and chanting “God, Syria, Bashar” in what were dubbed “Loyalty Marches.” (Reuters)
“Breaking News: the conspiracy has failed!” declared one banner, referring to government accusations that foreign elements and armed gangs are behind the unrest. “With our blood and our souls we protect our national unity,” another said. (Reuters)
On Monday, the armed forces in Daraa fired live ammunition in the air to disperse the pro-democracy demonstrators; it was unclear if there were any casualties.
“They were marching peacefully, asking for their rights, when the army opened fire at them,” said one witness who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. “But this is not the end.” (New York Times)
“Sectarian was never an issue before, this is a conspiracy targeting Syria,” said Jinane Adra, a 36-year-old Syrian who came from Saudi Arabia to express support for Assad. “The Syrian people are one, there is no place for religious divisions between us,” she said, flanked by her children, ages 3 and 5, carrying red roses and pictures of Assad. (Toronto Star)
Mohammed Ali, 40, said Assad was in touch with the Syrian people and aware of their need for reforms. “This dirty conspiracy will be short-lived, we are all behind him,” he said, cradling an Assad poster on his chest. (Toronto Star)
All gatherings and demonstrations not sponsored by the state are banned in Syria, a country of 22 million at the sensitive heart of generations of Middle East conflict.
Media organizations operate in Syria under restrictions. The government has expelled three Reuters journalists in recent days – its senior foreign correspondent in Damascus and then a two-man television crew who were detained for two days before being deported back to their home base in neighbouring Lebanon.
“President Assad accepts the government’s resignation,” the state news agency SANA said, adding that Naji al-Otari, the prime minister since 2003, would remain caretaker until a new government was formed. (Reuters) The president plans to make “a very important speech” on Wednesday, Reem Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Information Ministry said. The speech will “reassure the Syrian people,” the state-run SANA news agency has reported. (CNN)
Sacking the government is seen as a cosmetic change since it has little authority in Syria, where power is concentrated in the hands of Assad, his family and the security apparatus.
Earlier more than 200 protesters gathered in Deraa chanting, “God, Syria, and Freedom” and “O Hauran rise up in a revolt,” a reference to the plateau where Deraa is located. (Reuters)
Deraa is a center of tribes belonging to Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom resent the power and wealth amassed by the elite of the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs. Latakia, a religiously mixed port city, has also seen clashes, raising fears the unrest could take on sectarian tones.
The government has said Syria is the target of a project to sow sectarian strife. “If things go south in Syria, bloodthirsty sectarian demons risk being unleashed and the entire region could be consumed in an orgy of violence,” wrote Patrick Seale, author of a book on late president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, on the Foreign Policy blog. (Reuters)
Bordered by Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, Syria maintains a strong anti-Israel position through its alliances with Shi’ite Muslim regional heavyweight Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as well as Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas. It has also reasserted influence in smaller neighbour Lebanon.
Last week Assad made a pledge to look into ending emergency laws, consider drafting laws on greater political and media freedom, and raise living standards. However Syrian officials, civic rights activists and diplomats doubt that Assad, who contained a Kurdish uprising in the north in 2004, would completely abolish emergency laws without replacing them with similar legislation. Emergency laws have been used since 1963 to stifle political opposition, justify arbitrary arrest and give free reign to a pervasive security apparatus.
“We believe President Assad is at a crossroads. He has claimed to be a reformer for over a decade but he has made no substantive progress on political reforms and we urge him to … address the needs and the aspirations of the Syrian people,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. (Reuters)
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe urged Syria to adopt political reform, but said it was not time for sanctions or intervention by the United States.
Protesters want political prisoners freed, and to know the fate of tens of thousands who disappeared in the 1980s.
The British-educated president was welcomed as “reformer” when he replaced his father in 2000. He allowed a short-lived “Damascus Spring” in which he tolerated debates that criticized Syria’s autocratic rule, but later cracked down on critics. Assad’s crackdown on protests has drawn international condemnation, including from close ally, neighbouring Turkey. But, Syria is unlikely to face the kind of foreign military intervention seen in Libya.
By cultivating rapprochement with the West in recent years, while at the same time consolidating its ties with anti-Israel allies in Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, Syria poses a headache for the West which has few options beyond condemning the violence and making calls for political reforms.
The United States, long critical of Syria’s support for anti-Israeli militant groups and its involvement in Lebanon, restored full diplomatic relations by sending an ambassador to Damascus in January after a nearly six-year gap.
“Iran is very involved with this regime. Iran would defend it with all means possible,” said Antoine Basbous, head of the Paris-based Observatory of Arab countries. “What’s at stake if the Syria regime falls is not just a matter of Syria internally, the stakes are above all geopolitical ones on a regional scale.” (Reuters)
“There must be a very harsh debate going on” around the president, said Elizabeth Picard, a political science professor and expert on Syria who is based in France. “We’re nearing a zero-sum game. Once you let go a little, you take the risk of losing everything. Some people are going to cling to power.” (New York Times)