Syrian cabinet resigns as regime seeks to calm protests

The entire Syrian cabinet has resigned amid the country’s worst unrest in decades, state television has announced.

President Bashar al-Assad accepted the cabinet’s resignation after a meeting on Tuesday. The move is the latest concession by the government after more than a week of mass protests calling for more political freedom. But it will not affect Assad, who holds the lion’s share of power in the regime.

The president, whose family has controlled Syria for four decades and has a history of crushing dissent, is expected to address the nation in the next 24 hours in a speech that may include a promise to abolish emergency laws.

Earlier, hundreds of thousands of regime supporters poured on to the streets of the capital, Damascus, and at least four other major cities, waving pictures of the president and flags as the government tried to show it has mass support.

Assad is facing down the most serious threat to his family’s longstanding authority in this predominantly Sunni Muslim country, ruled by the minority Alawite sect.

Assad, who has been president for 11 years and is one of the most anti-western leaders in the Middle East, is wavering between cracking down and compromising in the face of protests that began in a southern city on 18 March and spread to other areas. There was a swift crackdown by security forces and at least 61 people have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch.

The unrest in this country of 23 million people could have implications beyond its borders, given its role as Iran’s leading Arab ally and as a frontline state against Israel.

The government-sanctioned rallies brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in the provinces of Aleppo and Hasakeh, in the north, and the central cities of Hama and Homs. Schoolchildren were given the day off while bank employees and other workers were given a two-hour break to attend the demonstrations.

“The people want Bashar Assad!” chanted protesters in a central Damascus square. Men, women and children gathered in front of a huge picture of Assad put up on the central bank building. “No to sectarianism and no to civil strife,” read one placard.

When the Middle East protests hit Syria, it was a dramatic turn for Assad, a British-trained opthalmologist who inherited power from his father in 2000 after three decades of iron rule. In January, he said his country was immune to such unrest because he was in tune with his people’s needs.

The disturbances, prompted by the arrest of several teenagers who had scrawled anti-government graffiti on to a wall in the southern agricultural city of Deraa, quickly spread to other provinces. The protests and violence have eased in the past few days but tensions persist in Deraa and the Mediterranean city of Latakia.

Troops on Monday fired teargas into a crowd of some 4,000 people in Deraa who were calling for more political freedoms, witnesses said. They also fired live ammunition into the air to disperse the crowd.

( / 29.03.2011)

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