World and Nation

Syria offers changes to ward 
off anti-government protests

CAIRO — As Syria braced for renewed anti-government demonstrations, the government announced new measures on Thursday seemingly aimed at addressing the protesters’ demands.

But analysts said they were doubtful that the changes, coming a day after President Bashar Assad pointedly refused to make concessions, would amount to more than window-dressing, and activists promised to go ahead with plans for a nationwide protest on Friday.

The protest could be a critical test of the strength of the movement, which in a little over two weeks has posed an unprecedented challenge to the four-decade iron rule of the Assad family.

The police and the military have responded aggressively to check the protests; activists say at least 103 people have died. Assad’s speech to the nation Wednesday, in which he called the protesters dupes and agents of a foreign conspiracy, left little doubt that the hard line would continue.

He acknowledged popular demands for reform but insisted protesters had been “duped” into damaging the nation on behalf of its enemies, and vowed that the country would not bow to foreign pressure.

“It is clear from Bashar’s speech that he is threatening Syrians who go to the street,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist and visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington.

“He ended the speech by saying, ‘This is a battle and we are ready to fight it.’ But against who?”

That question appeared to be answered just hours after the speech, when security forces opened fire upon pro-democracy demonstrators in the coastal city of Latakia, a stronghold of the ruling Baath Party and the Shiite Alawi sect that dominates it. Witnesses and activists gave conflicting reports of from two to 15 protesters killed.

Assad’s harsh words on Wednesday contrasted with the conciliatory tone of two government announcements on Thursday creating new committees to address the protesters’ concerns.

One committee was appointed to investigate deaths in Daraa and Latakia, two cities where the government has cracked down on protesters, according to the state news agency.

The government also announced the creation of a committee to study lifting the emergency law imposed in 1963 and replacing it with legislation “that secures the preservation of the country’s security, the dignity of citizens and combating terrorism,” according to the state news agency.

Lifting the emergency law, which has been in place since 1963, has been a major demand of the protesters.