Bowing to pressure, Assad fires cabinet

Embattled president expected to give first address since start of unrest; Analysts say regime change in Syria could benefit Israel.

By OREN KESSLER
March 30, 2011 01:01
3 minute read.
Pro-government rally in Damascus

Syria Pro-government rally 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Yielding to unremitting public pressure for reform, Syrian President Bashar Assad dismissed his cabinet on Tuesday, as thousands of Syrians rallied in support of his continued rule. Meanwhile, Syrian citizens and observers abroad waited for the embattled leader to deliver his first address since large-scale unrest erupted last week.

“President Assad accepts the government’s resignation,” the state news agency SANA said, adding that Naji al-Otari, the prime minister since 2003, would remain caretaker until a new government was formed.

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State television showed Syrians in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Hasaka, waving the national flag and pictures of Assad, chanting: “God, Syria, Bashar.”

“Breaking News: the conspiracy has failed,” declared one banner, according to Reuters – echoing government accusations that foreign elements and armed gangs were behind the unrest. “With our blood and our souls we protect our national unity,” another said.

Employees and members of unions controlled by Assad’s Baath Party – which has been in power for nearly 50 years – said they had been ordered to attend the rallies, where there was a heavy security presence.

The scene in Deraa, the epicenter of recent protests that have killed 61 people in recent days, was markedly different. More than 200 protesters gathered in the southern city, chanting, “God, Syria and Freedom” and “O Hauran rise up in revolt” – a reference to the plateau on which Deraa lies.

Assad is expected to deliver a long-awaited address on Wednesday, in which he will likely lift the emergency law that has been in place for nearly 50 years, since his Baath Party took power in a coup.

Lifting the emergency law could mean little in practice, although it could represent a significant symbolic victory to a populace long accustomed to having virtually no say in their country’s leadership.

As protests continued this week, Syria watchers scrambled to ascertain what a post- Assad Syria might look like.

“If things go south in Syria, blood-thirsty sectarian demons risk being unleashed, and the entire region could be consumed in an orgy of violence,” wrote Patrick Seale, author of a book on former leader Hafez Assad, on the Foreign Policy blog. “If Syria were overrun with internal strife, Hezbollah would be deprived of a valuable ally – no doubt to Israel’s great satisfaction.”

Elliott Abrams, a Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former deputy national security adviser to president George W. Bush, wrote Friday in the Washington Post that Assad’s ouster would be good news both for the US and for regional allies like Israel.

“A government dominated by Syria’s Sunni majority – the Assad clan is from the tiny Alawite minority – would never have the close relations with Hezbollah and Iran that Assad maintains; it would seek to reintegrate into the Arab world,” Abrams wrote. “Iran will lose its close Arab ally, and its land bridge to Hezbollah, when Assad falls.”

MK Einat Wilf (Independence), told the AP on Tuesday that should Assad fall, “it could be a really good message that benefits Israel – that trying to go against Israel and America doesn’t give you eternal legitimacy.”

On the diplomatic front, the US and France condemned the Syrian government for its harsh response to the demonstrations.

“In a series of side meetings, I also had the chance to discuss a number of issues, including Syria,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday, after a London meeting of international powers on Libya.

“I expressed our strong condemnation of the Syrian government’s brutal repression of demonstrators – in particular the violence and killing of civilians in the hands of security forces,” she said.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Assad must make more progress on political reforms and should meet the needs and aspirations of his citizens.

France urged Syria to adopt political reform and open dialogue with its people, but said it was not time for sanctions or UN intervention, its foreign minister said.

When asked what France expected from Syria’s decision to create a new government, Minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppe said he condemned all violence and repression of public demonstrations.

“We call for reforms and a dialogue,” Juppe told reporters in London, while carefully highlighting the difference in the Syrian and Libyan cases. “We’re not at the stage of studying sanctions or a UN Security Council resolution.”


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