Assad faces toughest test from Syrian unrest

BEIRUT, April 19 Wed Apr 20, 2011 9:07am BST

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BEIRUT, April 19 (Reuters) - Syria's President Bashar al-Assad trained to be an ophthalmologist because, he said, eye surgery involves few emergencies and not much blood is spilt.

Now Assad, who abandoned his medical studies and inherited power when his father died 11 years ago, is battling a wave of protests across his tightly controlled state in which rights groups say more than 200 people have been killed.

The demonstrations for greater freedoms, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, have swept Syria for four weeks despite a fierce security crackdown and vague promises of reform, presenting Assad with the gravest challenge to his rule.

The 45-year-old, still portrayed by supporters as a youthful reformist, has responded with a characteristic mix of defiance and conciliatory gestures, seeking to show he would not bow to regional turmoil which toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

"Implementing reform should not be a fad. When it is just a reflection of a wave that the region is living, it is destruction," Assad told parliament last month in his first public comments since the unrest erupted on March 18.

His troops and special forces sought to crush protest in the cities of Deraa and Banias, but he also promised citizenship to stateless Kurds and on Tuesday his government approved legislation to lift nearly 50 years of emergency rule.

Opposition figures, who also want thousands of political prisoners to be released and for an easing of the tight grip of security forces, said the move was not sufficient.

Critics who expect Syria's new legislation to be equally draconian point to Bashar's repressive record after a brief opening up in the first months after he took power in July 2000.

At the time, Assad freed some political detainees and allowed debate on democracy and reform to flower, only to crush the "Damascus Spring" a few months later. He also kept relatives and members of his minority Alawite faith -- an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam -- in key positions of authority around him.

Assad has said his decade in power has offered little opportunity to open up, saying the U.S. military response to the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings, its 2003 invasion of neighbouring Iraq, and a Western-led campaign to oust Syrian troops from Lebanon two years later blocked any efforts at domestic liberalisation.

Opponents say he has never been serious about reform.

"The revolution is at the door and the regime is still flirting with change," leading opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh, an 80-year-old former judge, said after the unrest first broke out in the southern city of Deraa last month.

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