- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

DAMASCUS, Syria | Facing an extraordinary wave of popular dissent, Syrian President Bashar Assad fired his Cabinet on Tuesday and promised to end widely despised emergency laws.

But the concessions are unlikely to appease protesters demanding sweeping reforms in one of the most hard-line nations in the Middle East.

The largely symbolic overtures are a moment of rare compromise in the Assad family’s 40 years of iron-fisted rule. Security forces monitor and control nearly every aspect of society in Syria, and the feared secret police crush even the smallest rumblings of opposition. Draconian laws have all but eradicated civil liberties and political freedoms.

With the protests that erupted March 18, thousands of Syrians appear to have broken through a barrier of fear in this tightly controlled nation of 23 million.

Syria stands at a crossroads,” said Aktham Nuaisse, one of Syria’s leading human rights activists. “Either the president takes immediate, drastic reform measures, or the country descends into one of several ugly scenarios.

“If he is willing to lead Syria into a real democratic transformation, he will be met halfway by the Syrian people.”

The coming days will be key to determining whether Mr. Assad’s concessions will quiet the protest movement, which began after security forces arrested several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in the impoverished, drought-parched city of Daraa in the south.

The protests spread to other provinces and the government launched a swift crackdown, killing more than 60 people since March 18, according to Human Rights Watch.

The violence has eased in the past few days, and some observers say the demonstrations might quickly die out if the president’s promises appear genuine.

Mr. Assad, who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, appears to be following the playbook of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by using concessions and brutal crackdowns.

The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders, given its role as Iran’s top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, it also has provided a home for radical Palestinian groups.

But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The U.S. recently has reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas - although the effort has not yielded much.

On Tuesday, the Syrian government mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters who poured into the streets of Damascus and across many parts of the country as the regime tried to show it has mass support.