Syrians Renew Protests Despite Concessions

Protesters gathered again in large numbers in cities across Syria on Friday to demand reforms, defying a nationwide crackdown in which dozens of demonstrators have been killed in regular rounds of gunfire from security forces.

Women hold an anti-government demonstration in Banias, Syria

CAIRO — Protesters gathered again in large numbers in cities across Syria on Friday to demand reforms, defying a nationwide crackdown in which dozens of demonstrators have been killed in regular rounds of gunfire from security forces.

Seeking to tamp down the now weekly and deadly protests, the government of President Bashar al-Assad had announced several measures on Thursday meant to mollify demonstrators.

Thousands of people assembled in a belt of suburbs around Damascus, the capital; in the central city of Homs; and in the besieged southern town of Dara’a, which has been isolated behind a tight security cordon since the early days of unrest in mid-March.

In the wave of popular uprisings that began to sweep the Arab world three months ago, Friday has become the focal day for demonstrations, with protesters pouring out of mosques after noon prayers, often to confront security forces.

The latest signs of dissent in Syria, run by one of the most repressive Arab regimes, came a day after the government in Syria announced an amnesty for some prisoners and other steps to try to placate the growing numbers of demonstrators who have taken to the streets in recent weeks.

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

Syrian pro-government protesters carry pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad as they shout slogans after Friday prayers

Mr. Assad also formed a new cabinet on Thursday and met with officials from Dara’a, which has been the epicenter of protests since the detention of a group of students for spray-painting antigovernment grafitti last month.

Even as the conciliatory measures were announced on Thursday, though, human rights activists said that organizers of the protests in Dara’a were being detained. Some activists complained that the new national cabinet — which included some former ministers — was unlikely to push for more democratic policies, and expressed doubts that protesters who want sweeping change in Syria would be appeased.

On Friday, the day began with a wave of early-morning detentions in the Druze village of Sweida and in a string of villages around Dara’a. At least 43 people were detained in Sweida, said Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group; by Insan’s count, at least 172 people have been arrested from eleven villages around Dara’a in the last 24 hours.

Thousands of protesters gathered in the Damascus suburbs of Daraya, Douma and Zabadani and attempted to stage a demonstration in Umayyad Square in the center of the capital, but they were dispersed by security forces, Mr. Tarif said in a telephone interview.

Security forces also massed in the main square of Homs to preclude demonstrations there, he said. In response, protesters gathered in scattered neighborhood rallies in an attempt to “make the security forces spread out,” Mr. Tarif said.

A businessman from Dara’a who said that a relative of his was in the delegation that met with President Assad on Thursday said that 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.’ ”

Still, Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights advocate based in Damascus, 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.

The announcement of a new cabinet came two weeks after the president dismissed the old one. The change appeared to be less momentous than some had hoped. The foreign and defense ministers, Walid Mouallem and Ali Habib, were held over from the previous cabinet.

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.

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 he believed that a 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.

New York Times