x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Syria president appoints new government, orders protesters freed from jail

Syria's president announces a new government and orders protesters freed as he tries to placate protesters and reduce the number of expected demonstrations that have erupted on Fridays.

Damascus // The Syrian president Bashar al Assad last night unveiled a new government and ordered the release of hundreds of arrested protesters.

The latest response to demands for sweeping political reforms came ahead of what is expected to be another day of demonstrations today.

Fridays are now a key benchmark of whether anti-government sentiment is spreading or being defused by a mixture of concessions, promises of reform and hardline security.

Since Friday protests began last month, authorities have sought to

ensure that big announcements are made by Thursday evening, part of the battle for public opinion, and the crucial struggle to keep the vast majority of Syrians who have not joined in protests from taking to the streets.

"In order to strengthen cohesion among people [president Assad] decided to release all those detained after recent events who did not commit crimes against the nation and the citizens," state run television announced.

Similar pledges were made last month but, while many protesters were freed at the time, hundreds more were subsequently arrested.

A reshuffled government was also announced last night, with many ministers, including foreign affairs and defence, staying in their positions.

Ibrahim al Shaar was named as the new minister of interior and Mohammad al Jililati, the former stock exchange chief, was made minister of finance.

"There are no big surprises. It's basically the same faces, the same recipe as before," said one Syrian analyst, giving his initial response to the cabinet. "It's not a big reformist government. It's not introducing new technocrats or independent figures. If anything it's more economically conservative."

Throughout the week, Syrian authorities have negotiated with community leaders and activists in key areas, as they try to prevent more protests.

In the city of Banias, Syrian officials and residents yesterday agreed on some steps to restore calm, including that secret police

units would be pulled back and the army deployed to ensure security.

The presence of soldiers was welcomed by many in the city but hopes of defusing tension were immediately strained when, according to state run media, a sniper fatally shot one solider, Fadi Issa Mustapha, and wounded another, while they were on patrol yesterday.

Banias has been tense since last weekend when pro-government gunmen and security forces killed four people and wounded more than a dozen others after protests, according to human rights activists.

An army unit was then ambushed en route to the city on Sunday, the government said, with nine soldiers killed and many injured.

Hundreds of men from the nearby town of Baida were later arrested, which sparked a huge demonstration by local women on Wednesday demanding that the detainees be freed.

Also yesterday, Mr al Assad met a delegation from Deraa, in his first direct talks with representatives close to the protesters in the city since demonstrations began there on March 18.

Previous contacts between the government and Deraa officials were ineffective, at least in part because the protesters did not recognise the men - government appointees - chosen to represent them.

Deraa's largely tribal population also complained of being disrespected, with no official apology for the killings and no personal intervention by the president.

Attempts to reduce tensions in Syria though talks, rather than ignite popular outrage with a blunt crackdown, have been underway since the start of the month, with protests in the Damascus suburb of Douma apparently providing the model.

Anti-government demonstrations there on April 1 resulted in at least 11 deaths, which activists blamed on security units firing live ammunition into crowds, although there were also claims of unidentified gunmen shooting at protesters and security forces.

In Deraa such incidents started a cycle of anger and violence. In Douma a high-level official from the ruling Baath party was quickly sent in to talk to local leaders.

The sides agreed that security units would be pulled back for the funerals, while arrangements were made for corpses to be returned to grieving families, for the injured to be treated and for detainees to be freed, according to a Syrian analyst knowledgeable about the talks. Those steps appear to have stemmed the violence.

On Sunday, Douma residents met with president Assad, and, according to news reports, he gave his personal condolences to the neighbourhood over the deaths.

"It looks as though the authorities have learned some of the lessons from Deraa and have come up with new management policies," the analyst said. But he stressed they had not dealt with the underlying causes of the protests.

Demonstrators have been demanding deep political changes, including an end to almost five decades of repressive emergency laws.

Mr al Assad has promised reforms and tasked committees to draw up plans, but protesters say that does not go nearly far enough. At the same time, the Syrian security services have continued to suppress outbreaks of dissent, forcibly breaking up demonstrations, on the grounds they have been hijacked by foreign-backed terrorist groups.