|The anti-government protests have continued despite Assad regime’s promise of reforms [AFP]|
Syria’s government, under massive pressure to reform or quit, has adopted a draft law allowing for the creation of new political parties alongside the long-ruling Baath party.
The multi-party bill approved by the Cabinet late on Sunday follows other concessions Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has made as part of his efforts to quell more than four months of protests against his government.
“The establishment of any party has to be based on … a commitment to the constitution, democratic principles, the rule of law and a respect for freedom and basic rights,” said SANA, the state-run news agency.
The draft law, which still needs parliamentary approval, would allow for the establishment of any political party that is not based on religious or tribal lines, or discriminates due to ethnicity, gender or race, the news agency said.
Assad’s ruling Baath party, which calls for “unity, freedom and socialism”, has held a monopoly over political life in Syria since a 1963 military coup.
A key demand of the protest movement is the abolishment of Article 8 in the Syrian constitution, which states that the Baath party is the only leader of the state and society.
Yasser Saadeldine, a Syrian opposition figure living in exile, said the new law “is designed to show on paper that the regime tolerates dissent while continuing killings and repression”.
Reporting from Beirut, Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin said that protesters are dismissing the draft law. The people are demanding “political freedoms, not just a law to organise how to form political parties”.
Our correspondent continued: “We spoke to some opposition figures and they said, ‘What’s the use of this law if we cannot travel to Deraa and Baniyas and Latakia and to different Syrian cities and be able to meet with people and assemble? What’s the use of the law if we are going to be persecuted by the security forces for simply disagreeing with the government or be put in prison for organising a political meeting?'”
Lawmaker Mohammad Habash told The Associated Press that the bill in itself was positive but that some articles of the constitution must be amended first, including article 8.
Series of overtures
Assad, who inherited power in 2000 after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad, has made a series of overtures to try to ease the growing social uprising.
He lifted the decades-old emergency laws that gave the government a free hand to arrest people without charge, granted Syrian nationality to thousands of Kurds, a long-ostracised minority, and issued several pardons.
Yet the concessions failed to sap the momentum of the protest movement, which has dismissed them as either symbolic or far too late.
As a first step, the protesters are demanding an immediate end to the security crackdown and the release of thousands of people who have been detained in recent months.
The government, however, has shown no signs of letting up in its efforts to crush the uprising.
On Sunday, Syrian troops stormed a northwestern village and made sweeping arrests in the region and in the capital Damascus.
Security forces rounded up hundreds of civilians in Damascus and made arrests near Homs and in the town of Sarakeb in the northwestern province of Idlib near the Turkish border, activists said.
New amateur video shows what it says are shops in Homs and Damascus closed in protest against Assad.
In Homs, troops backed by tanks “deployed heavily in Duar al-Fakhura and around the neighbourhood of Al-Nazihin,” Abdel Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights, told the AFP news agency.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported a new military deployment in Homs, quoting an activist in the city.
The Syrian president sacked the governor of the flashpoint province of Deir az-Zor on Sunday, two days after massive protests demanding his ousting were held in the oil-producing region.
Samir Othman al-Sheikh, an officer in the intelligence apparatus, was asked to replace Hussein Arnos.
Arnos, a civilian, has now been asked to govern the small province of Qunaitera west of Damascus, on the border with the Golan Heights.
The move is being seen as an attempt to tighten the government’s grip on Deir az-Zor.
About half a million people took to the streets across Deir az-Zor on Friday, in one of the biggest demonstrations in recent weeks, activists and human rights campaigners said.
Deir az-Zor, which produces most of Syria’s oil, is among the poorest of the country’s 13 provinces, and a water crisis in the past six years has crippled agricultural production.
Last week, the army surrounded the town of Albu Kamal near Deir az-Zor, which borders Iraq’s Sunni heartland, after 30 soldiers defected following the killing of four protesters in the town, residents said.
Since the uprising against his regime began in March, Assad has also sacked the governors of the southern province of Deraa, cradle of the uprising, and the provinces of Homs and Hama, which have witnessed huge demonstrations.
According to the Syrian Observatory, 1,483 civilians are now confirmed dead in the government crackdown on dissent since mid-March. The violence has also claimed the lives of 365 troops and security forces, the government says.