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End of emergency rule in Syria unlikely to quell protests or stop arrests

The Syrian cabinet on Tuesday passed legislation lifting nearly five decades of emergency rule. The concession may embolden protesters to demand greater reforms.

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Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in 1963 declared the state of emergency. According to the BBC, the law gives the government "ability to place restrictions on freedoms of individuals with respect to meetings, residence, travel, and passage in specific places or at particular times; to preventatively arrest anyone suspected of endangering public security and order; to authorize investigation of persons and places; and to delegate any person to perform any of these tasks.”

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The law is justified on the grounds that Syria is at war with Israel and must battle terrorism within the country.

Assad first hinted at lifting the law on March 24, after thousands of Syrian protesters took to the streets in the southern city of Deraa. A week later, he delivered a defiant speech that said, “a time frame is a matter of logistics.” The delay angered protesters and rights activists.

"That was the beginning of the end," says Professor Saab of the University of Maryland. "Syria made a strategic decision to go to war against its own people."

Assad may have waited too long to appease his own people, says Ms. Allaf at Chatham House. "Ironically, had the regime lifted the law a month ago, it would have bought itself a lot of goodwill. Because they waited so long, and accompanied by the brutal repression ... they don’t go together."

Insurgency in the making?

Allaf says real negotiations must now begin. "There’s only so much cosmetic surgery you can do: Either you repress more, or you back down and say let’s talk," she says. The government might still release the thousands of Syrians jailed under past years under the emergency law, or possibly open the state-controlled economy to private business.

Mr. Toner of the US State Department said in an April 18 daily press briefing that lifting of the emergency law would be a positive move, but it would not necessarily translate into any real change. “These would be positive signs, but ultimately, it’s up to the Syrian people to interpret those as adequate," Toner said. "But the other thing is he said a lot of things before publicly, but ... we’ve seen very little in the way of action.”

“We’re watching closely now to see how those words translate into deeds,” he added.

The government initially blamed the protests on foreign agents such as the US and Israel, then shifted accusations to people working for former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and this week fingered supposed Salafist jihadists.

Al Watan, a pro-government newspaper, reported that Syrian opposition figures met in central London Tuesday to plot to encourage uprisings in Hassakeh and Aleppo, according to Damascus-based Syria Today magazine.

Analysts readily dismiss those allegations. But by failing to extend an olive branch early on, the government may have created an uncontrollable opposition movement that could morph into an armed insurgency, says Professor Saab of the University of Maryland.

"This is a critical stage where compromise or repression will lead to more unrest," he says.

RELATED: How Syria and other countries use emergency rule to quash dissent


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