- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2011

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Facing a massive protest movement demanding reform, Syria‘s president set up committees Thursday to look into the deaths of civilians during nearly two weeks of unrest and at replacing decades-old emergency laws.

The moves appear to be a carefully designed attempt by President Bashar Assad to head off massive protests planned for Friday while showing he will not be pressured to implement reform; instead, he will make changes at his own pace.

On Wednesday, he dashed expectations that he would announce sweeping changes, instead blaming two weeks of popular fury on a foreign conspiracy during his first comments since the protests began.

It was not immediately clear whether Thursday’s overtures would succeed in pacifying a growing protest movement in one of Mideast’s most autocratic regimes.

Activists have called for demonstrations across Syrian on Friday, dubbing it “Martyrs Day,” in what could prove to be a turning point in the country’s future.

Syrians watch President Bashar Assad on television as he addresses parliament in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. Mr. Assad, giving his first speech to the nation since anti-government protests erupted in this tightly controlled Arab state, blamed "conspirators" for trying to destroy the country. The speech was seen as a crucial test for Mr. Assad's leadership and one that may determine Syria's future. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Syrians watch President Bashar Assad on television as he addresses parliament in ... more >

Syrian TV said the ruling Baath Party’s regional command formed a committee made up of legal experts to study legislation that would “guarantee the country’s security and dignity of Syrians and combat terrorism.”

“This would pave the way for lifting the state of emergency laws,” it said. The widely despised, decades-old emergency laws give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.

The state-run news agency said the committee would complete its study by April 25.

Syrian TV also said Mr. Assad has set up a judicial committee tasked with urgently investigating the circumstances that led to the death of Syrian civilians and security forces in the southern city of Daraa and Mediterranean port city of Latakia.

The president also set up a panel to study granting Syrian citizenship to some 250,000 Kurds. The panel would complete its work before April 15 — a step that would fulfill a longstanding Kurdish demand.

Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in Syria, long have complained of persecution by Syrian authorities. In 2004, clashes that began in the northeastern city of Qamishli between Syrian Kurds and security forces left at least 25 people dead and some 100 injured.

Kurds so far have stayed out of the current protests, but Thursday’s decision reflects concern they would join in.

Mr. Assad fired his 32-member Cabinet on Tuesday in a move designed to mollify the anti-government protesters, but the overture was largely symbolic. Mr. Assad holds the lion’s share of power in the authoritarian regime, and there are no real opposition figures or alternatives to the current leadership.

The protests were touched off by the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on walls in Daraa. They spread to other parts of the country last week, and human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed since March 18 as security forces cracked down on the demonstrations.

An anti-government protester in Daraa said Thursday that security forces arrested up to 17 people in the city overnight. He said a sit-in by a few hundred protesters near the al-Omari mosque, the epicenter of protests, ended Thursday.

Story Continues →