Syrian Leader To Address Nation Amid Unrest

Syrian President Bashar Assad is to address the nation Wednesday for the first time since unprecedented protests erupted in this tightly controlled Arab country, a speech seen as a crucial test for his leadership and one that may determine Syria's future.

Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protester, waves Syrian flag as she looks to the crowed who demonstarte to show their support for their president, in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday March 29, 2011. Pledging allegiance for President Bashar Assad as he faces the biggest challenge to his 11-year rule, hundreds of thousands of Syrians gathered in a central Damascus square Tuesday, waving his pictures and chanting support. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

Syrian President Bashar Assad is to address the nation Wednesday for the first time since unprecedented protests erupted in this tightly controlled Arab country, a speech seen as a crucial test for his leadership and one that may determine Syria's future.

Assad is expected to announce constitutional amendments and sweeping reforms, including an end to nearly 50 years of widely despised state of emergency laws that give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charges. On Tuesday, Assad fired his Cabinet in another move designed to pacify the anti-government protesters.

Syrian TV says Assad will speak at midday Wednesday.

While his overtures are largely symbolic, they represent a moment of rare compromise in the Assad family's 40 years of iron-fisted rule.

They came as the government mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters to take to the streets in rallies in the capital and elsewhere Tuesday, in an effort to show it has wide popular backing.

The coming days will be key to determining whether Assad's concessions will quiet the protest movement, which started after security forces arrested several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in the impoverished city of Daraa in the south.

The protests then spread to other provinces and the government launched a swift crackdown, killing more than 60 people since March 18, according to Human Rights Watch. The violence has eased in the past few days and some predict the demonstrations might die out if the president's promises appear genuine.

However, small protests in various cities have continued, according to reports, in addition to a sit-in by a few hundred people in the restive Daraa.

Videos posted on YouTube showed anti-government demonstration in the town of Douma, just outside the capital, and another in the southern town of Inkhil on Tuesday, but the videos could not be independently verified.

Since the protests erupted March 18, thousands of Syrians appear to have broken through a barrier of fear in this tightly controlled nation of 23 million.

Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters, shout pro-Assad slogans as they demonstrate to show their support for him, in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday March 29, 2011. Pledging allegiance for President Bashar Assad as he faces the biggest challenge to his 11-year rule, hundreds of thousands of Syrians gathered in a central Damascus square Tuesday, waving his pictures and chanting support. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

"Syria stands at a crossroads," Aktham Nuaisse, a leading human rights activist, said Tuesday. "Either the president takes immediate, drastic reform measures, or the country descends into one of several ugly scenarios. If he is willing to lead Syria into a real democratic transformation, he will be met halfway by the Syrian people."

Assad, who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, appears to be following the playbook of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by using both concessions and brutal crackdowns.

The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily — until people accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime.

The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders, given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

In London, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Tuesday on the Syrian government and Assad to prove they can "be responsive to the needs" of their own people.

In January, Assad, a 45-year-old British-trained eye doctor, said his country was immune to the kind of unrest roiling the Mideast because he is in tune with his people's needs.

So far, few in Syria have publicly called on Assad to step down. Most are calling for reforms, annulling emergency laws and other stringent security measures and an end to corruption.

AP