New power struggle as Assad fires his cabinet
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad made only the smallest of concessions to the widening protest movement against his rule yesterday when he accepted his cabinet's resignation.
But there is fresh speculation that he is embroiled in a struggle to cling on to power.
Mr Assad's sacking of his government was widely expected, and was seen as an attempt to deflect popular anger.
He follows in the footsteps of other Arab autocrats trying to contain the unrest across the Middle East.
The move was his first concrete gesture after a promise of reforms communicated through his spokesman last week failed to materialise. But it was swiftly undermined after Naji Otri, the outgoing prime minister, was immediately reappointed in a caretaker capacity.
Mr Assad also failed, for a second time, to make a scheduled television appearance, in which he was expected to explain his proposed reforms. This prompted fresh speculation over a power struggle within his ruling family.
Embarrassed aides were forced to insist the broadcast would take place today. They have hinted that he will make good on a pledge to lift Syria's state of emergency, which has been in force since the Baath party came to power in 1963.
According to opposition activists, Mr Assad's non-appearances are due to efforts by hardliners, led by his brother Maher, to sideline him.
Many Western politicians believe the president, who trained as an ophthalmologist in London, is the most moderate voice in the Syrian government, but that he is surrounded by a powerful clique opposed to reform.
Mr Assad's critics disagree, pointing to the fact that he has twice reneged on promises to liberalise one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East in the 11 years that he has held power.
Yesterday, in a staged show of loyalty, hundreds of thousands of Syrians rallied in central Damascus, chanting "the people want Bashar al-Assad".
Meanwhile, security forces patrolled parts of the country whose loyalty is less certain, with a heavy military response reported in the cities of Deraa and Latakia, as well as parts of the capital itself.
Western human rights groups say that at least 60 protesters have been killed by forces loyal to the Assad family, but opposition activists put the number closer to 200.
Protesters had at first limited their demands to greater freedoms. But, incensed by a security crackdown, especially in the southern city of Deraa where protests first erupted, they later demanded the "downfall of the regime".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned what she called "the Syrian government's brutal repression of demonstrators, in particular the violence and killing of civilians in the hands of security forces" in recent protests.
State television showed people in the Syrian capital Damascus and cities including Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Tartus waving the national flag and pictures of Assad and chanting. (© Daily Telegraph, London)