The Syrian cabinet has approved a law that allows the formation of political parties other than the ruling Baath party, provided they adhere to "democratic principles", the state news agency said on Monday.

The Baath party, which has banned opposition groups since a l963 military coup, has been under pressure to abandon its monopoly on power amid a four-month uprising that has called for the toppling of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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"The establishment of any party has to be based on ... a commitment to the constitution, democratic principles, the rule of law and a respect for freedom and basic rights," the state news agency SANA said, referring to conditions to be met by parties that want to apply for a license to operate legally.

Yasser Saadeldine, an Syrian opposition figure living in exile in the Gulf, said the new law "is designed to show on paper that the regime tolerates dissent while continuing killings and repression".

"Every time the regime comes under international pressure it takes more false reform measures to try and appear as having democratic credentials. But arrests of activists continue and the crackdown deepens," Saadeldine said.

On Sunday, Assad replaced the governor of the eastern tribal province of Deir al-Zor, two days after the biggest protests demanding an end to Assad's rule in the oil producing region.

Hussein Arnos, a civilian, was transferred to govern the small province of Qunaitera west of Damascus, on the border with the Golan heights, the agency said, noting that he was replaced by Samir Othman al-Sheikh, an officer in the intelligence apparatus.

Half a million people took to streets across Deir al-Zor on Friday to demand Assad's removal, in the biggest demonstrations since the street uprising for political freedoms erupted in March, activists and human rights campaigners monitoring the demonstrations said.

Last week the army surrounded the town of Albu Kamal, on the easternmost edge of Deir al-Zor, which borders Iraq's Sunni heartland, after 30 soldiers defected following the killing of four protesters in the town, residents said.

Deir al-Zor, which produces most of Syria's 380,000 barrels per day of oil, is among the poorest of the country's 13 provinces. A water crisis in the last six years, which experts attribute to mismanagement and corruption, has hit agricultural production and cut living standards.

Since the uprising began, Assad has sacked the governors of the southern province of Deraa, cradle of the uprising, and the provinces of Homs and Hama, where the number of demonstrators has been growing.

Assad has been relying on the military, dominated by members of his own minority Alawite sect, to crush the uprising against his autocratic rule.

Activists and diplomats say the repression has been triggering limited defections among the majority Sunni rank and file. The government says the protests are part of a violent conspiracy backed by foreign powers to sow sectarian strife.

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