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.
Protesters march in Syria for fifth straight day
'More than 100 killed in Syrian anti-government rallies'
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.
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
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
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
“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.
come from Egypt, where the Egyptian army stood on the sidelines and allowed
people to demonstrate and in fact empowered a revolution.
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
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
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.
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.”