Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday ordered the release of all detainees arrested in a wave of protests, except those who committed crimes “against the nation and the citizens,” state media said.

The move came following the exposure of a document opposition groups said detailed the regime’s intelligence strategy for clamping down on the month-long uprising.

Syria’s state news agency SANA said the prisoner release followed a meeting between Assad and “religious and popular” figures.

Assad also announced a cabinet reshuffle, but critics said the move means little in Syria, where the executive and judiciary have been sidelined under 48 years of Ba’athist rule and power is held firmly by the Assad family and the security apparatus.

The new government is headed by Adel Safar, who was agriculture minister in the government of Naji al-Otari that resigned on March 29, more than a week after protests broke out in the southern city of Deraa and spread to other parts of the country. The Syrian president retained veteran diplomat Walid Muallem as foreign minister, appointed intelligence operative Ibrahim al- Shaar as interior minister and Muhammad al-Jililati, head of the Damascus Stock Exchange, as finance minister.

Syrian opposition figures revealed a document on Wednesday purportedly drafted by senior intelligence officials detailing a plan to infiltrate anti-government protesters and detain and assassinate their leaders. The document, which a US official said was likely authentic, also includes plans to blame the country’s unrest on “Zionists” and other foreign agitators.

The text could not be immediately verified, but the US official said there was a “strong likelihood” it is real.

“It would not be surprising if the Syrians are plotting the use of dirty methods to discredit opponents,” he said.

The document was posted on Wednesday to Facebook, and a translation provided by NBC News.

“No leniency shall be observed with regards to smearing the image of our highest symbol” – a reference to Assad – “regardless of the costs,” according to an English translation.

The plan, dated March 23, also calls for banning news media coverage of the protests and punishing those “who convey any news that does not serve the country,” adding that the security services should “show no leniency in this matter.”

The document outlines a three-pronged media, security and political plan to suppress the protests. “Link the anti-regime demonstrations and protests to figures hated by the Syrian populace such as the usual Saudi and Lebanese figures, and connecting the lot of them to Zionism and to America,” it says.

The plan also calls on security agents to work via Facebook to “jam up” dissent using “pseudonyms” to pose as political dissidents and then gather intelligence about the opposition. Opposition figures should also become the target of lawsuits designed to “smear their moral and religious reputations.”

The text calls for blocking off the locations of political protests, and inserting civilian- clothed security agents “in an attempt to cause a state of chaos.”

To further “deceive the enemy,” snipers should be concealed among protesters and be given the leeway to shoot some security agents or army officers, “which will further help the situation by provoking the animosity of the army against the protesters.”

Any areas where the protests get out of control should be isolated, with the electricity and Internet links cut off. The plan calls for the “arrest of key influential figures in that area, and if the situation is critical, to kill them.”

But the document also cautions that when security forces and snipers enter protest areas, “the number of people killed must not exceed twenty each time, because it would let them be more easily noticed and exposed, which may lead to situations of foreign intervention.”

The state news agency said snipers killed a soldier on Thursday in the coastal city of Banias, where authorities had been trying to ease tensions after large protests against Assad.

Rights campaigners said authorities had agreed to replace secret police in Banias with army patrols as part of a deal to reduce tension in the restive city.

The agency quoted a source saying “a group of armed snipers shot today a number of army members while they patrolled the city of Banias...One was martyred and another wounded.”

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In the capital, several hundred students marched in a pro-democracy protest at Damascus University for a second day.

Also on Thursday, Lebanese border police detained two people trying to drive cars filled with weapons into Syria, security sources said. “The cars had AK-47s, semi-automatic weapons, and some bombs,” one security source said. The men, a Lebanese and a Syrian, were detained late on Wednesday in the border area of the eastern Bekaa Valley.


David Schenker and Andrew Tabler, Syria experts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote on Thursday that the moment of truth has arrived for the Assad regime, and that protests following Friday prayers this week could prove fateful in determining whether it survives. If the government’s approach so far is any indication, it will undoubtedly be a bloody day,” they wrote.

“Washington should issue a strong public warning before Friday that the regime will be held accountable should it respond violently to peaceful demonstrations.”

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