The Syrian government has pledged to consider lifting some of the Middle East’s most repressive laws in an attempt to stop a week-long uprising in a southern city from spreading and threatening its nearly 50-year rule.
The promises were immediately rejected by many activists who called for demonstrations around the country today in response to a crackdown that protesters say killed dozens of anti-government marchers in the city of Daraa.
“We will not forget the martyrs of Daraa,” a resident said. “If they think this will silence us they are wrong.”
The coming days will be a crucial test of the surge of popular discontent that has unseated autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens to push several others from power.
On one side in Syria stands a regime unafraid of using extreme violence to quash internal unrest.
In one infamous example, it levelled entire sections of the city of Hama with artillery and bulldozers to put down an uprising by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.
Facing the regime is a loosely organised protest movement in the main city of southern Syria’s drought-parched agricultural heartland.
Sheltering in Daraa’s Roman-era old city, the protesters have persisted through seven days of increasing violence by security forces, but have not inspired significant unrest in other parts of the country.
President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, appears worried enough to promise increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers – a familiar package of incentives offered by other nervous Arab regimes in recent weeks.
“To those who claim they want freedom and dignity for the (Syrian) people, I say to them we have seen the example of Iraq, the million martyrs there and the loss of security there,” presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban told reporters in the capital, Damascus, as she announced the promises of reform.
Ms Shaaban told reporters that the all-powerful Baath party would study ending a state of emergency that it put in place after taking power in 1963.
The emergency laws, which have been a feature of many Arab countries, allow people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial.
Human rights groups say violations of other basic liberties are rife in Syria, with torture and abuse common in police stations, detention centres and prisons, and dissenters regularly imprisoned for years without due process.
Syria’s state TV said later that Mr Assad ordered the release of all detainees in connection with the unrest of the past few days.
Shortly afterward, Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said authorities released several activists, writers and bloggers who were detained in different parts of Syria in an apparent response to events in Daraa.
Mr Rihawi said those released included Mazen Darwish, a journalist and activist, and writer Loay Hussein.