BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian cabinet endorsed legislation on Tuesday to lift the state of emergency, in force for 48 years, but the decision is seen as symbolic since existing laws give wide powers to heavy-handed security forces.
Another decision to “regulate peaceful protests” stipulates that people must get permission from the Interior Ministry to demonstrate in Syria.
Both draft laws need the signature of President Bashar al-Assad, in power for the last 11 years, who has struggled to curb the protests and who said last week there would be no reason to demonstrate once emergency law is lifted.
A legislative decree which came into effect in September 2008 gives security forces the power to act with impunity, said rights activist Wissam Tarif.
What does this mean for the unrest in Syria?
* Opposition says protests will continue.
Protesters and activists say these moves do not constitute sufficient concessions and do not form a radical change in the way Assad runs the country. Protesters want the release of thousands of political prisoners, the right to free speech and a multi-party system to replace Baath Party control.
“This (announcement) is all just talk. The protests won’t stop until all the demands are met or the regime is gone,” leading opposition figure Haitham Maleh, an 80-year-old former judge, told Reuters.
Less than an hour after the announcement, a pro-democracy demonstration erupted in the restive coastal city of Banias, which had witnessed an intense security crackdown last week.
That followed a pattern seen week after week since mid-March: Assad has several times announced measures such as concessions to minorities, dissolving his cabinet, or Tuesday’s announcement on emergency law, but protesters were not satisfied and went out in bigger numbers, usually after Friday prayers.
“This is a moment of truth for the regime. The president has made concessions. In many ways that’s a sign of weakness. He’s in a trap, the protesters are going to see that as a success, so they’ll redouble their efforts,” said Syria expert Joshua Landis of Oklahoma University.
* Security forces will not allow Syrian Tahrir Square
Authorities have blamed the protests on an armed insurrection led by hardline Salafists and earlier on Tuesday called on protesters not to take part in any protests no matter the reason.
“The regime has demonstrated that it is willing to use force. There will be an escalation in violence,” Landis said. “They’re going to use live fire in order to repress this.”
Most importantly, Assad wants to avoid a visible focal point for the protests, such as Egypt’s Tahrir square or Bahrain’s Pearl Square, when it becomes much more difficult for security forces to remove a permanent, settled presence.
Security forces fired tear gas and used batons to disperse protesters who had tried to converge on Damascus’ Abbaside Square last Friday and also cleared out another gathering in Homs, Syria’s third city, killing 17 people.
“If you get that type of very symbolic move, which is to establish a long-term presence in one of the cities, they’ll move on that. They won’t allow that,” said Scott Lucas, editor of the EA Worldview online journal.
* Can protesters gain momentum?
So far, the momentum has been swinging between the ruling hierarchy, in power since the Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup, and a slow, but growing and emboldened protest movement.
A key difference between Syria and the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, is the number of protesters. In Syria, many are fearful of the state’s pervasive security apparatus. Activists say thousands of political prisoners are held in jail. Emergency law has been used to justify arbitrary arrests and ban any opposition.
Security forces have intensified their campaign of arrests, mostly after big protests following midday Friday prayers, and have surrounded cities with tanks. They have mostly been able to do that because the numbers have not overwhelmed security forces.
“The only possible way that (protesters) can overcome this is to continue to swarm. If they could have a Tahrir moment, and have hundreds of thousands in the square, instead of tens of thousands, they can overwhelm the forces,” Landis said, recalling the focal point of the unrest in Egypt.
“But they haven’t been able to do that yet,” he said.
* Is Assad still in control?
While the protests have posed the gravest challenge to Assad’s rule, he is still very much in control. He was able to bring out much larger crowds in state-sponsored nationwide demonstrations on March 29.
Although there have been reports of some members of the security forces refusing to open fire on protesters, the crackdown against them has intensified.
“I disagree that the regime is falling. It’s not crumbling yet, without any doubt. It’s still very strong. We still haven’t reached the point where we’re seeing students and people in Damascus and Aleppo and that is what the regime is trying to avoid,” said Rime Allaf of Chatham House.
Editing by Jon Hemming