DAMASCUS, Syria — Facing an extraordinary wave of popular dissent, Syrian President Bashar Assad fired his Cabinet on Tuesday and promised to end widely despised emergency laws – concessions unlikely to appease protesters demanding sweeping reforms in one of the most hard-line nations in the Middle East
The overtures, while largely symbolic, are a moment of rare compromise in the Assad family’s 40 years of iron-fisted rule. They came as the government mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters in rallies in the capital and elsewhere, in an effort to show it has wide popular backing.
Nearly every aspect of Syrian society is monitored and controlled by the security forces, and the feared secret police crush even the smallest rumblings of opposition. Draconian laws have all but eradicated civil liberties and political freedoms.
But with the protests that erupted on March 18, thousands of Syrians appear to have broken through a barrier of fear in this tightly controlled nation of 23 million.
“Syria stands at a crossroads,” said Aktham Nuaisse, a leading human rights activist.
“Either the president takes immediate, drastic reform measures, or the country descends into one of several ugly scenarios. If he is willing to lead Syria into a real democratic transformation, he will be met halfway by the Syrian people,” Nuaisse said.
The coming days will be key to determining whether Assad’s concessions will quiet the protest movement, which began after security forces arrested several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in the impoverished city of Daraa in the south.
The protests spread to other provinces and the government launched a swift crackdown, killing more than 60 people since March 18, according to Human Rights Watch. However, the violence has eased in the past few days and some predict the demonstrations might quickly die out if the president’s promises appear genuine.
“People are tired from all this pressure and violence and I think if he (Assad) shows he’s taken the people’s demands seriously, they might stop,” said a protester in Daraa who gave only his first name, Ibrahim, for fear of reprisals by security forces. “We’re all waiting for his speech.”
Still, tensions remained high in Daraa, where several hundred people were still staging a sit-in Tuesday, and in the Mediterranean port of Latakia, which has a potentially volatile mix of different religious groups.
Assad, who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, appears to be following the playbook of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by using both concessions and brutal crackdowns.
The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily – until people accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime.
The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders given its role as Iran’s top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.
Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.
But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The U.S. recently reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – although the effort has not yielded much.
In London, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on the Syrian government, “starting with President Bashar Assad, to prove that it can be responsive to the needs of its own people.”
“We are, like the Syrian people, waiting and watching to see what comes next from the Syrian government,” Clinton said, urging the “timely implementation of reforms that meet the demands that Syrians are presenting to their government.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Syrian government mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters who poured into the streets of Damascus and across many parts of the country as the regime tried to show it has mass support.
“The people want Bashar Assad!” chanted supporters in a central Damascus square. Men, women and children gathered in front of a huge picture of Assad put up on the Central Bank building.
Later in the day, Assad accepted the resignation of his 32-member Cabinet in a move designed to pacify the anti-government protesters.
Still, the resignations will not affect Assad, who holds the lion’s share of power in the authoritarian regime, and there are no real opposition figures or alternatives to the current leadership anyway.
On Wednesday, Assad is expected to address the nation for the first time since the unrest began, formally announcing an end to nearly 50 years of emergency laws imposed by his late father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.
The laws give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge. Still, there is scant reason to believe that dropping them will result in much immediate change; rights groups have been documenting mass arrests in Syria since the protests began.
When the unrest roiling the Middle East hit Syria, it was a dramatic turn for Assad, a 45-year-old British-trained eye doctor who inherited power from his father in 2000. In January, he said his country was immune to such unrest because he is in tune with his people’s needs.
Assad does maintain a level of popular support, in no small part because of his anti-Israel policies, which resonate with his countrymen. And unlike leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan, Assad is not allied with the United States, so he has been spared the accusation that he caters to American demands.
So far, few in Syria have publicly called on Assad to step down. Most are calling for reforms, annulling emergency laws and other stringent security measures and an end to corruption.
Nuaisse, a longtime pro-reform activist, said Syria differs from Tunisia and Egypt.
“Syria is a mosaic of various sects, which makes it particularly sensitive to upheaval,” he said. “People here do not want to descend into a bloody quagmire,” he said.
The anti-government protests and ensuing violence have brought Syria’s sectarian tensions into the open for the first time in decades, a taboo topic because Syria has a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam.
Assad has placed his fellow Alawites into most positions of power in Syria. But he also has used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes, while punishing dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.
Many of the pro-regime demonstrators Tuesday emphasized national unity.
“Sectarianism was never an issue before, this is a conspiracy targeting Syria,” said Jinane Adra, a 36-year-old Syrian who came from Saudi Arabia to express support for Assad.
“The Syrian people are one, there is no place for religious divisions between us,” she said, flanked by her children, ages 3 and 5, carrying red roses and pictures of Assad.