Syria braces for mass Friday protests

Activists say Assad's lifting of emergency law is just symbolism; gov't reportedly deploys police, army in main cities ahead of expected protests.

Protesters in Syrian city of Homs 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Protesters in Syrian city of Homs 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Embattled President Bashar Assad overturned Syria’s half-century-old emergency law on Thursday, in a bid to defuse the popular protests rattling the country for over a month.
But experts and opposition activists dismissed the move as little more than symbolism, predicting the Syrian regime would continue to clamp down on protests, whatever the legal pretext.
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Assad’s announcement gave official authorization to government legislation passed earlier this week to lift the emergency law. The concession comes ahead of what protesters have described as “Great Friday” demonstrations after weekly prayers.
The New York Times reported the government had deployed police and army units in Damascus and Homs in anticipation of what could be the largest protests yet.
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington and its chief negotiator with Syria from 1993 to 1997, said that as long as the regime had the support of the army and security forces, it was in no imminent danger of collapse.
“Their dilemma is that if the demonstrations continue and pick up steam, more ruthless suppression will be required. The government knows it’s being monitored closely by the world, particularly by the US,” Rabinovich said by phone from New York.
“Washington does not have an inclination to interfere or intercede, but massive bloodshed would force Obama’s hand, because he would be hard-put to explain why the US intervened in Libya, but not in Syria,” he said.
Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of national security studies at the University of Haifa, said that even in the improbable case that Assad was removed, Syria would likely remain an authoritarian state led by a powerful Alawite minority that controlled the armed forces.
“The people will demonstrate and shout and protest, and the regime will allow much of it but will remain in power. We’ve already seen something like that in Egypt. The regime hasn’t fallen – it’s still a military dictatorship. Only the personnel has changed,” he said.
“I think even in Egypt we haven’t really seen a real revolution as yet. It remains to be seen whether the coming elections will be free and take power out of the hands of the military junta, which is still in control. I think Syria is going to be even slower – I can definitely see a long period of unrest, a kind of stalemate,” Ben- Dor said.
Since its implementation in 1963, the emergency law has been used to justify arbitrary arrests and restrictions on free speech and assembly.
Rights activist Ammar Qurabi welcomed the move, but told Reuters other measures must follow, such as the release of prisoners detained during the unrest and a retrial in civil courts for all those convicted by the state security court.
Leading opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh said the move was meaningless without an independent judiciary and curbs on the powers of the security forces.
“The state has a multitude of tools of repression at its disposal that have to be dismantled for repression to end,” Maleh said.
State TV said Assad also endorsed legislation that regulated protests, and dissolved a state security court that lawyers said violated the rule of law and the right to a fair trial.
Assad’s conciliatory move followed a familiar pattern since the unrest began a month ago: Pledges of reform are made a day before Friday, when demonstrations have been the strongest, and are usually followed by an intense crackdown. Rights groups say about 200 demonstrators have been killed.
Residents in the southern city of Deraa, where protests first erupted in March, said army units took up positions closer to the city on Thursday after having abandoned them in the past two days.
A rights activist said trucks carrying soldiers and vehicles equipped with machine guns were seen on the highway between Damascus and Homs, a central city that has emerged as the new focal point of protests in mostly Sunni Syria.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday said Washington was deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in Syria.
“We are particularly concerned about the situation in Homs, where multiple reports suggest violence and casualties among both civilians and government personnel,” she said. “The Syrian government must allow free movement and free access, it must stop the arbitrary arrest, detentions and torture of prisoners.”
Syria’s former vice president Abdelhalim Khaddam said the crackdown would eventually lead to Assad’s overthrow, adding he expected the army to stop supporting the president.
In an interview last week in the London daily Asharq al-Awsat, a Syrian human rights activist said Assad’s supposed “resistance” against Israel was little more than a pretext for squelching dissent.
“Whenever we ask for freedom and democracy they tell us that our confrontation with Israel is more important than narrow domestic issues. They excuse themselves with this confrontation with Israel, and now they are saying that the Syrian regime is nationalist and does not bow to the West,” Muntaha al-Atrash said.
“However, we, too, do not bow to the West and do not accept anybody’s dignity being harmed. The dignity and pride of Syria will not bow, regardless of who is ruling.
“In Doma city they are arresting the injured in hospital and killing the wounded in the street in cold blood,” Atrash said. “Israel itself does not act in this manner, so why is there all of this bloodshed?”

Reuters contributed to this report.