By Liam Stack
This article was published in The New York Times on 16/04/2011
In a speech at the swearing-in of a new cabinet, Mr. Assad announced a raft of new legal proposals, including a pledge to end the country’s 48-year-old emergency law within days, and he expressed sorrow for deaths that have taken place since antigovernment unrest began — perhaps more than 200, according to human rights groups.
“The blood that was shed in Syria pains us all,” he said, swearing in a cabinet named last week. “We are sad for every loss. We consider each of them martyrs.”
The speech was seen as an attempt at conciliation by a government that has faced down protests with a mixture of chilling violence and dry pledges to study policy proposals.
The emergency law, which gives the president and security forces expansive power to detain Syrians for any cause, has been a major target of protesters’ criticism since the unrest began in March, incited by the detention and torture of a group of university students caught spraying antigovernment graffiti. The repeal will come “before the end of next week,” Mr. Assad said.
But few analysts believe that much will change even if the law does. The emergency law has been the foundation of the Assad family’s entire reign, and the security forces’ enshrinement as the all-powerful right hand of the Assads is a fact of everyday life and death in Syria.
Indeed, in his speech, Mr. Assad signaled that he still felt the need for order trumped all else, saying that no further protests would be necessary — and implying that none would be tolerated — once the emergency law was repealed.
“The Syrian people are civilized and orderly: they love order and they do not like chaos,” Mr. Assad said, adding that the need remained to “strengthen the internal front” against “sabotage.”
But critics said the speech would not be enough to head off new protests, which activists said reached their biggest numbers just the day before when a column of tens of thousands marched from the Damascus suburbs in a bold effort to occupy one of the capital’s central squares. They were beaten back by security forces on Friday night, witnesses said.
“He is repeating an old speech, this is nothing new,” said Razan Zeitouneh, an activist with the Syrian Human Rights Information Link. “He mentioned dignity several times, but he didn’t mention who it is violating the people’s dignity.”
“The main issue, which is the security forces, was not mentioned,” she added, nor were demands to end of the practice of life-long presidency established by Mr. Assad’s father that many fear he intends to fulfill himself.
In addition to committing to the end of emergency rule, Mr. Assad promised to fight unemployment and to study the legalization of political parties, which are now banned, as well a law guaranteeing the right to peacefully assemble.
Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist and visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington, said that the proposed lifting of the emergency law would do little to ease the power of the security forces because Syrian law contains a number of fail-safes intended to maintain their exceptional power.
Those measures include the Law Governing the General Intelligence in Syria, which has an article giving the security forces immunity from prosecution for any crime committed in the line of duty. “Many authoritarian regimes have something similar, but none of them actually use the word ‘crime,’ ” Mr. Ziadeh said. “The Syrian law uses the word ‘crime’ without any definition of what it means, so it could mean killing or torture. It is crazy.”
Meanwhile, protests continued in Syria on Saturday. In the coastal town of Baniyas, Osama El Sheikh, 40, who was shot in the stomach by pro-government forces while protecting a local mosque, died of his wounds, Ms. Zeitouneh said. Later, a large crowd of women protested in the street chanting, “God, Freedom and Syria,” shown in videos posted on YouTube.