- 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.

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.

But he said protesters were regrouping for more demonstrations in Daraa and nearby areas Friday. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

In Mr. Assad’s speech before Parliament on Wednesday — his first public comments since the protests began — he said Syria is being subjected to a “major conspiracy.”

He made only a passing reference to the protesters’ calls for change, saying he was in favor of reform, but acknowledged there have been delays. “The question is what reforms do we need,” he said, without offering any specifics.

Social networking sites immediately exploded, with activists calling on Syrians to take to the streets.

Within hours of Mr. Assad’s speech, residents of Latakia said troops opened fire during a protest by about 100 people, although it was not immediately clear whether they were firing in the air or at the protesters. The residents asked that their names not be published for fear of reprisals.

Latakia, which has a potentially volatile mix of different religious groups, already has become a flashpoint for violence that could take on a dangerous sectarian tone in the coming days and weeks.

The anti-government protests and ensuing violence have brought Syria‘s sectarian tensions into the open for the first time in decades, a taboo topic because Syria has a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam.

Mr. Assad has placed his fellow Alawites into most positions of power in Syria. But he also has used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes, while punishing dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.

Mr. Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, Hafez, appears to be following the same strategy of other autocratic leaders who scrambled to put down uprisings by offering minor concessions coupled with brutal crackdowns. The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where citizens accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime.

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