Syrian President Bashar Assad issued an unprecedented pledge of greater freedom and more prosperity to his people on Thursday as anger mounted following a crackdown on protesters that left at least 37 dead.

As an aide to Assad in Damascus read out a list of decrees, which included a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested.

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In the southern city of Deraa, a hospital official said at least 37 people had been killed there on Wednesday when security forces opened fire on demonstrators.

Announcing the sort of concessions that would have seemed almost unimaginable three months ago, Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told a news conference the president had not himself ordered his forces to fire on protesters: “I was a witness to the instructions of His Excellency that live ammunition should not be fired – even if the police, security forces or officers of the status were being killed.”

Assad, she said, would draft laws to provide for media freedoms and allow political movements other than the Baath Party, which has ruled for half a century.

Shaaban said Assad would strive, above all, to raise living standards across the country and would look at “ending with great urgency the emergency law, along with issuing legislation that assures the security of the nation and its citizens.”

Around 20,000 people marched on Thursday in the funerals for nine of those killed, chanting freedom slogans and denying official accounts that infiltrators and “armed gangs” were behind the killings and violence in Deraa.

“Traitors do not kill their own people,” they chanted. “God, Syria, Freedom. The blood of martyrs is not spilt in vain!” The US government has stepped up its criticism of Syria as Assad has intensified his bloody crackdown on the opposition.

Visiting Israel on Thursday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Syria should follow the example of Egypt, where the army held its fire and helped the people overthrow the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak.

“I would say that what the Syrian government is confronting is in fact the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people,” Gates said. “Some of them are dealing with it better than others.

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turmoil in the Middle East


I’ve just come from Egypt, where the Egyptian army stood on the sidelines and allowed people to demonstrate and in fact empowered a revolution.

The Syrians might take a lesson from that.”

Gates cited Syria, Libya and Iran as examples of “authoritarian regimes [that] have suppressed their people and have been willing to use violence against them.”

“And so I think that what we see is the opening to the future that’s occurring in virtually all of these countries,” Gates said.

His host, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, sounded a cautious note over the prospects for major domestic upheaval in Syria: “In regard to the peace opportunities, once again we cannot pass a judgment right now whether it’s good or not good, whether the situation is right or not. But [when] the time [comes] that the Syrian government will decide that they’re open to consider negotiating with us, we will be open.”

Members of the US Congress, meanwhile, denounced Syria’s actions. Republican senators Jon Kyl of Arizona and Mark Kirk of Illinois issued a statement Thursday emphasizing that “the Syrian people must know that the United States stands with them against the brutal Assad regime. We can ill afford another timid embrace of a democratic uprising.”

They also called on the Obama administration to do more to support the opposition groups, urging US Ambassador Robert Ford to undertake “a sustained campaign of outreach from the US Embassy in Damascus to the Syrian opposition movement.”

On Thursday, top opposition figures in Syria and in exile dismissed Assad’s reform offer. Dissidents said the president had failed to take immediate measures to meet growing demands to free thousands of political prisoners, allow freedom of expression and assembly and scrap emergency law, giving the security apparatus free rein.

Security forces opened fire Wednesday on hundreds of youths on the outskirts of Deraa, in southern Syria near the Jordanian border, witnesses said, after nearly a week of protests in which seven civilians had already died.

As Syrian soldiers armed with automatic rifles roamed the streets on Thursday, Deraa residents emptied shops of basic goods and said they feared Assad’s government was intent on crushing the revolt by force.

A government statement had earlier blamed “armed gangs” for the violence in Deraa.

“If the rest of Syria does not erupt on Friday, we will be facing annihilation,” said one resident in Deraa, referring to Friday prayers, the only time citizens are allowed to gather en masse without government permission.


The army has so far taken a secondary role in confronting protesters – mostly manning checkpoints. Secret police and special police units wearing black have been more visible in Deraa since the protests broke out last Friday.

In the early hours of Wednesday, security forces fired at protesters in the vicinity of the Omari mosque in Deraa’s old quarter, residents said. YouTube footage showed what was purported to be the street in front of the mosque before the attack, with sounds of gunfire audible and a person inside the mosque grounds yelling, “Brother, don’t shoot! This country is big enough for me and you.”

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