Syria's Assad willing to lift emergency law

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has come under increasing pressure this week as protests turned deadly. Syrians are staying a 'Day of Dignity' protest today.

Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters
Buthaina Shaaban, adviser of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, speaks at a news conference in Damascus on March 24. Assad made an unprecedented pledge of greater freedom and more prosperity to Syrians Thursday as anger mounted following a crackdown on protesters that left several dead.

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Despite early claims that Syria was immune to the protests sweeping across the Middle East, President Bashar al-Assad now finds himself forced to make concessions as protests gather momentum in the south.

Most notably, President Assad indicated that he is willing to lift the state of emergency, in place since 1963, that has given security forces a high degree of power. The move came after thousands of protesters took to the streets in the southern city of Deraa. The protests have turned violent, but although demonstrators allege that security forces were responsible for several deaths, the government has denied these claims. (See video.)

In addition to the offering possible reforms, on Thursday evening the president issued an executive order releasing all the activists who had been detained during the protests, reports Press TV. Syrian human rights groups have confirmed the release of detainees.

Buthaina Shaaban, the president's media adviser, has also emphasized the government’s willingness to study possible reforms, but this pledge may come too late. Syrians are staging a “Day of Dignity” protest today.

“This is widespread. This is Syrians who are in pain, who are in poverty, who have been treated badly, and the government understands that,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in an interview with Al Jazeera. “Shaaban made some important statements saying no issue is taboo and the government feels your pain. At the same time, they [the government] crack down harshly, and this shows there is real confusion in the government on how to deal with this.”

According to the International Crisis Group, unlike other Arab leaders facing unrest, Assad may still have an opportunity to regain the support of his people by taking on a more assertive role as president. Despite discussing several reforms, he “has yet to assume clear and palpable leadership,” the group said in a statement, adding that his success likely depends on stopping repressive tactics and demonstrating that the change is possible while providing a clear direction for the nation.

But for many Syrians, any compromise that keeps Assad in power is not enough. Exiled Syrian dissident and activist Ammar Abdulhamid said that after numerous human rights abuses, the current Syrian regime has lost all legitimacy, and it has failed to deliver on its promises of reform for more than a decade.

“Now we need new faces, so he has to leave. One way or another, he has to leave; we need a new system, we need a new government, we need new faces in charge, we cannot put up with the promises and lies of the al-Assad regime,” said Mr. Abdulhamid in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Such direct calls for regime change may not represent the predominant public opinion in Syria, where Assad remains somewhat popular and many hope to see the reforms by his hand, rather than the chaos of protests.

“[Syrians] don’t want to destroy their country,” said Abd el-Karim Rihawi of the Syrian Human Rights League, according to the Washington Post.

But while many Syrians would like for Assad himself to implement changes, Mr. Rihawi said (referring to the government), “if they insist on dealing with this movement with an iron fist, I think maybe the situation will blow up – and we can’t imagine what that will look like.”

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