DAMASCUS (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad defied calls on Wednesday to lift a decades-old emergency law and said Syria was the target of a foreign conspiracy to stir up protests in which more than 60 people have been killed.
Angry that their demands were not met, hundreds of protesters chanting “Freedom” marched in the port city of Latakia, where residents said security forces had fired in the air.
Speaking in public for the first time since the start of the unprecedented demonstrations, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, Assad said he supported reform but offered no new commitment to change Syria’s rigid, one-party political system.
“Implementing reforms is not a fad. When it is just a reflection of a wave that the region is living, it is destructive,” said Assad, making clear he would not concede to pressure from mass protests which toppled other Arab leaders.
“Syria today is being subjected to a big conspiracy, whose threads extend from countries near and far,” Assad said, smiling and looking assured, without naming any countries.
Ending emergency law, the main tool for suppressing dissent since it was imposed after the 1963 coup that elevated Assad’s Baath Party to power, has been a central demand of protesters.
They also want political prisoners freed, and to know the fate of tens of thousands who disappeared in the 1980s.
The protests have presented the gravest challenge to Assad’s 11-year rule in Syria, which has an anti-Israel alliance with Shi’ite Iran and supports militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.
He also accused foreign media, who operate under restriction in Syria, of misrepresenting the protests.
The government has expelled three Reuters journalists in recent days — its senior foreign correspondent in Damascus and a two-man television crew who were detained for two days before being deported to their home base in neighboring Lebanon.
Social networking sites Twitter and Facebook were flooded with messages of disappointment and anger at Assad’s speech, in which he failed to mention any specific reforms the international community had urged him to take.
“What we understood from his speech is that it is imperative to bring down the regime,” wrote a user on the Facebook page “The Syrian Revolution 2011”, echoing slogans chanted in Tunisia and Egypt where entrenched rulers gave up power.
They called for protests on Friday, dubbing it “Friday of Martyrs”, but it was unclear how many people would turn out to a protest movement that has abated in the last two days.
In Latakia protesters took to the streets of the al-Sleibeh old district, where clashes last week killed 12 people according to Syrian officials.
Leading opposition figure Maamoun al-Homsi said there were protests in Deraa, where demonstrations against Assad began. Reuters was unable to confirm the information independently.
Emergency law has been used to stifle political opposition, justify arbitrary arrest and give free rein to a pervasive security apparatus in Syria.
Arbitrary arrests have continued across the country in large numbers since presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said last week that Assad was considering scrapping the emergency law, according to lawyers and activists.
Assad gave no timetable for other reforms he has mooted, including laws on political parties, media freedoms and fighting corruption. He said the priority was improving living standards in the country of 22 million, where many people struggle with rising prices, low salaries and lack of jobs.
“We can sometimes postpone (dealing with) suffering that emergency law may cause ... But we cannot postpone the suffering of a child whose father does not have enough money to treat him,” he said in a speech frequently interrupted by applause.
“He focused on defiance. He is defying his people and defying the international community,” Homsi told Reuters by telephone from Canada.
Homsi said he had the names of 105 people who had been killed in the last two weeks Syria, and predicted the wave of protests would continue. “The uprising won’t stop, because there are rights to be achieved,” he said, adding that a protest had erupted in Deraa shortly after Assad’s speech.
Assad spoke a day after tens of thousands of Syrians joined government-organised rallies across the country in a mass outpouring of loyalty to the 45-year-old leader, who became president in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad.
Assad accepted the resignation of his cabinet on Tuesday, but the government’s fall is seen as a cosmetic change since it wields little authority in Syria, where power is concentrated in the hands of the Assad family and security apparatus.
Assad said that a minority of people had tried to “spark chaos” in Deraa, but that they would be thwarted. He also said that clear instructions had been issued to security forces not to harm anyone during the protests.
Protesters at first limited their demands to more freedoms but, increasingly incensed by a security crackdown on them, they later demanded the “downfall of the regime”.
Deraa is a center of tribes belonging to Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom resent the power and wealth amassed by the elite of Assad’s Alawite minority.
Assad’s crackdown on protests has drawn international condemnation, including from the United States and neighboring Turkey, an ally.
Western countries have shored up relations with Syria in recent years, trying to wean it away from an alliance with Iran and push it toward peace with Israel, and they have not proposed punitive measures for the violence.
The British-educated Assad was welcomed as a “reformer” when he replaced his long-ruling father. He allowed a short-lived “Damascus Spring” in which he tolerated debates that faulted Syria’s autocratic system, but later cracked down on critics.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans and Yara Bayoumy