Syrian Government Offers Mixed Message to Protesters By: New York Times


By LIAM STACK and KATHERINE ZOEPF
Published: April 14, 2011

 CAIRO — Ahead of another day of planned antigovernment protests on Friday, President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria took several steps — including announcing an amnesty for some prisoners — to try to satisfy the growing numbers of demonstrators who have taken to the streets in recent weeks.

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 The government also withdrew its feared state security forces from the coastal city of Baniyas on Thursday, replacing them with regular army troops who are thought to be better liked.

Mr. Assad met with leaders from the southern city of Dara’a, where the pro-democracy movement began in mid-March, and also formed a new cabinet.

But even as the changes were announced, human rights activists said organizers of the protest movement in Dara’a were being detained, and some activists complained that the cabinet — which included some former members — was unlikely to push for needed reforms. The activists said they doubted that the changes would appease those pushing for democratic changes and, in some cases, for the president’s ouster.

The moves, which came amid reports of new protests in the predominantly Druse city of Sweida, appeared to be part of an effort to head off demonstrations on Friday, which has emerged as the day of the largest antigovernment protests of the week in Syria and other Arab countries.

“These are part of a raft of efforts by the regime to appease and calm the people,” said Amr al-Azm, a Syrian historian.

Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights advocate based in Damascus, the capital, said in a phone interview that it was unclear whether the switch to the army in Baniyas would be “positive or negative.” Ms. Zeitouneh noted that Syria’s army, in which all Syrian men must serve, tended to be viewed much more positively than the widely hated state security forces. “But they are saying that the army will prevent future protests, and we don’t know how the people will react tomorrow,” she said.

A businessman from Dara’a, who said that a relative had been part of the delegation that met with the president, said the group consisted of tribal chiefs, social activists and Muslim scholars. He said that the meeting lasted for about three hours and that the group “discussed most issues in an open and free way.”

“During the meeting, the president was very friendly and listened to them with open ears,” said the businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears for his safety. “The president even said to them: ‘I saw how people from Dara’a destroyed my father’s statues and my posters, but don’t worry. I will forgive that as a father forgives his sons.’ ”

But Ms. Zeitouneh said that despite the reportedly conciliatory tone of the meeting, witnesses told her organization, the Syrian Human Rights Information Link, that at least 10 organizers of the protest movement in Dara’a had been detained while city leaders were meeting with the president.

Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a human rights group, said his group had also received reports of detentions.

“If they are trying to work something out with the people of Dara’a, why are they detaining people in the villages?” Mr. Tarif asked.

The naming of the cabinet came two weeks after the president fired the old cabinet. But that change appeared to be less momentous than some had hoped. At least two were members of the old cabinet: Walid Mouallem and Ali Habib, the foreign minister and the defense minister.

And Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights advocate who is a visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington, said that none of the cabinet members were likely to press for change.

“None of them have a record of reform, of bringing reform to the table,” Mr. Ziadeh said of the new ministers.

It was not immediately clear, either, how many political prisoners would be released as a result of the announced amnesty for those detained in the protests of recent weeks, Mr. Ziadeh said.

“No one even knows how many there are,” he said. “Figures are never released.”

Fadi Salem, a native of Syria’s northern city of Aleppo who is the director of the Governance and Innovation Program at the Dubai School of Government, said that despite the antigovernment protests that Syrian activists had planned for Friday, he believed that the majority of Syrians still supported Mr. Assad.

“I think it would be dead wrong to simplify or romanticize this as the people against the authorities,” he said. “It’s much more nuanced than that.”

Many Syrians, Mr. Salem said, view their president as “a reformer within a decaying system.” And the pace of reform in Syria, he said, has quickened in recent weeks. “The state media has been transformed,” he said. “You can now see lively discussions of corruption, of the emergency law. The officially appointed committee was discussing repealing the emergency law on state TV, answering questions from the public.”

Such a discussion would have been unimaginable only recently.

Liam Stack reported from Cairo, and Katherine Zoepf from New York. An employee of The New York Times in Syria contributed reporting.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 15, 2011, on page A8 of the New York edition.


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