Syrian opposition plans Friday protests, keeping pressure on Assad

While President Bashar al-Assad has maintained a defiant tone, his government has hinted at concessions. Unconvinced, protesters plan to demonstrate again today.

By , Correspondent

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    Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, waves to his supporters after he made a speech at the Parliament, in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, March 30. Syria's president has blamed the wave of protests against his authoritarian rule on 'conspirators' - but he failed to offer any concessions to appease the extraordinary wave of dissent.
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Despite government officials' hints that they may make some concessions to protesters, Syria is braced for more demonstrations after Friday prayers. The government’s violent crackdown and remarks from the embattled President Bashar al-Assad make it seem unlikely that the government will make any substantive changes.

Particularly after President Assad's speech Wednesday – in which he said little to bolster hopes of reform among protesters – many analysts say the situation may be moving beyond Assad’s control.

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“Syria's future has passed into the hands of the country's young people, people in their 20s and 30s, who constitute more than half the population. They – members of the Sunni community and of the other ethnic groups, from the periphery and from the major cities – are the ones who will determine the country's path and future,” said Eyal Zisser, dean of humanities at Tel Aviv University and an expert on Syrian affairs, in an article in Haaretz.

Syria's aggressive response to protests has so far left more than 100 dead, according to demonstrators. Assad claims the protesters are conspirators sent by other nations and implied that he will demonstrate little leniency in dealing with them. This Friday will be a critical test of the opposition’s strength and willingness to fight, The New York Times reports.

“People are afraid to protest tomorrow [Friday], but there are many who are upset about the speech and what is happening in the country right now, and a good many of them will not be afraid to take to the street,” said Ammar al-Qurabi, a Syrian activist in Cairo. “The president’s speech was very threatening.”

Additionally, the president still enjoys at least a modest base of support. In Damascus, which has not seen protests on the scale of those witnessed in Latakia and Daraa, Al Jazeera spoke with a number of Syrians who supported the president and questioned the allegiance of those protesting. Some even defended Assad's decision not to repeal the controversial emergency law, in place since 1963, which has given unprecedented power to security forces for the last 48 years.

“He wanted to from 2005,” said a female teacher in Damascus, speaking about the president’s desire to remove the emergency law. “But you must understand that many in Syria are not ready for the changes, we need time. As the president said, ‘It’s good to be quick, but not good to rush.’”

While Assad has maintained his defiant tone, government officials have offered to create a new antiterrorism law as a first step toward repealing the emergency law. Still, a number of activists see the new law as simply a rewording of the emergency law, reports The Washington Post.

“This is not significant,” said Ammar Qurabi, the Cairo-based head of the Syrian National Organization for Human Rights, to the Post. “It would take just one minute to reverse the emergency law. They are just trying to find something to replace the emergency law. Anyway, people are not interested in a law. People are interested in what the security forces are doing on the ground.”

Meanwhile, President Obama’s administration is holding back from taking action in Syria. The Los Angeles Times says that Obama's response in Syria, compared with his response in Libya, indicates where he draws his limits on foreign intervention.

Both countries are within reach of missiles and warplanes launched from U.S. ships in the Mediterranean. The difference in U.S. policy toward them is an example of Obama's general approach to government: seeing policy in shades of gray rather than black and white.

But the administration has struggled to explain why it has intervened in one country and not the other. The explanation is difficult in part because it has less to do with humanitarian issues than with harder calculations of national interest.

According to the Obama administration, a unique set of conditions – including an international coalition, popular support for intervention among the Libyan people, and rebels who had established a de facto government – allowed for intervention in Libya. Obama has indicated that, as of now, it seems unlikely to him that these conditions could be duplicated anywhere else in the Middle East.

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