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In Syria, a test for Bashar Assad

The beleaguered president sends troops to protest areas and promises to repeal a controversial law. But there are signs that the unrest is a strain on his regime.

March 28, 2011|By Garrett Therolf and Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo — Syrian President Bashar Assad tried to retain control of his protest-roiled nation on Sunday, sending troops to the site of recent clashes and promising through subordinates to remove a controversial emergency law used to detain dissidents without trial.

But there were signs that the unrest continued to test the political skill of Assad, who came to power in 2000 after his father's 29-year rule. Political analysts pondered the regional implications of the stress being placed on his regime.

A presidential advisor told reporters Sunday that Assad would address the nation on state television "within 24 to 48 hours." The president has largely remained out of view since his forces first fired on unarmed protesters in the southern city of Dara on March 18. The death toll from such clashes has climbed past 60.

Assad's remarks were expected to detail his pledge to remove the 1963 emergency law, which strictly limits Syrians' ability to assemble or voice opposition to the regime. The government first signaled a willingness to relax the law on Thursday, but it did not give a timetable or scope for the pullback, and the pledge failed to stem widespread protests.

Army troops were sent Sunday to the small coastal city of Latakia, the site of the latest clashes with protesters. Government officials blamed "armed gangs" for violence there. News reports said six people have died and more than 100 have been injured.

Witnesses said the violence began when protesters set fire to a building housing the ruling Baath Party on Saturday, an event that was especially brazen because the Assad family's political and business connections run deep in the city.

Damascus, the capital, was skittish Sunday. Citizens received text messages from the government warning them not to go to Umaweyeen Square where security forces apparently fretted protesters would reemerge. The city buzzed with reports about detained foreigners, including Muhammad Bakr Radwan, a dual U.S.-Egyptian citizen who was accused of selling photographs to international outlets.

By dusk, witnesses said, an extremely heavy security presence descended on the area. White vans with tinted windows and decals showing Assad wearing aviator sunglasses were seen in the roundabout. Passersby noted that such vans often ferry people who are arrested.

Some protest leaders said their movement was using the day to regroup after protests in the west Damascus suburbs took on a sectarian overtone as Sunni Muslims battled with Alawites, a Shiite offshoot group that includes the Assad family.

State media seemed to stoke fears of further sectarian violence, saying foreigners had entered Syria to threaten the people's "coexistence" and political analysts spoke of a plot by the United States to send the country back to the Stone Age.

"Everybody wants to contain the problem before it gets bigger," said Maen Akl, a resident of Damascus. "People are so worried about a sectarian conflict, and they are chasing those who made some trouble yesterday."

Christians and other minority groups have taken solace over the years in the fact that Assad is an Alawite, believing he was a counterbalance against the Sunni majority.

"If there is really a change of regime in Syria, that would mean a change from Alawite rule to Sunni rule," said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

That would not just portend changes in the internal power structure, but would also probably strain relations with the country's closest ally, Shiite-dominated Iran.

"I think Iran is very worried right now about that, as [the Iranians] are about a lot of things in the region," Ottaway said.

Damascus has for years manipulated sectarian tensions in Lebanon and been a constant irritant to Israel and to U.S. policy in the region. Its ties to the radical groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip mean that a successful Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would probably require the endorsement of Assad's government.

The Syrian regime also has long frustrated regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak overthrown and Saudi King Abdullah in frail health, there were suggestions that Damascus would exploit the rapidly changing politics across the region.

The regime's adeptness at international maneuverings, however, has been eclipsed by its own internal upheaval as outraged citizens demand political freedom and better opportunities from one of the world's most entrenched police states.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Doha Al Zohairy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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