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Syrian president fires cabinet

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Facing an extraordinary wave of popular dissent, President Bashar Assad fired his cabinet yesterday and promised to end widely despised emergency laws -- concessions unlikely to appease protesters demanding sweeping reforms in one of the most hard-line nations in the Middle East.

The overtures, while largely symbolic, are a moment of rare compromise in the Assad family's 40 years of iron-fisted rule. Security forces monitor and control nearly every aspect of society in Syria, and the feared secret police crush even the smallest rumblings of opposition. Draconian laws have all but eradicated civil liberties and political freedoms.

But with the protests that erupted in Syria on March 18, thousands of Syrians appear to have broken through a barrier of fear in this tightly controlled nation of 23 million.

"Syria stands at a crossroads," said Aktham Nuaisse, one of Syria's leading human rights activists. "Either the president takes immediate, drastic reform measures, or the country descends into one of several ugly scenarios. If he is willing to lead Syria into a real democratic transformation, he will be met halfway by the Syrian people."

The coming days will be key to determining whether Assad's concessions will quiet the protest movement, which began more than a week ago after security forces arrested several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in the impoverished, drought-parched city of Daraa in the south.

The protests spread to other provinces and the government launched a swift crackdown, killing more than 60 people since March 18, according to Human Rights Watch. The violence has eased in the past few days and some observers believe the demonstrations might die out quickly if the president's promises appear genuine.

Still, tensions are high in Daraa, where several hundred people are still staging a sit-in, and in the Mediterranean port of Latakia, which has a potentially volatile mix of different religious groups.

Assad, who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, appears to be following the playbook of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by using concessions and brutal crackdowns.

The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where the ceiling of popular demands increased almost daily -- until people accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime.

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