DERAA, Syria (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public pledge to look into granting Syrians greater freedom on Thursday as anger mounted following attacks by security forces on protesters that left at least 37 dead.
Despite the promise and the offer of large public pay rises, thousands of Syrians turned out to chant “freedom, revolution” in the center of the southern city of Deraa, the focal point of protests against 48 years of Baath Party rule.
“The Syrian people do not bow,” they also chanted around the main Omari mosque, shortly after security forces evacuated the building which they stormed on Wednesday.
Syrian opposition figures said the promises did not meet the aspirations of the people and were similar to those repeated at regular Baath Party conferences, where committees would be formed to study reforms that then never saw the light of day.
“The leadership is trying to absorb the rage of the streets. We want to see reform on the ground,” said a Deraa protester.
A hospital official said at least 37 people had been killed in Deraa on Wednesday when security forces opened fire on demonstrators inspired by uprisings across the Arab world that have shaken authoritarian leaders.
While an aide said Assad would study a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested.
Announcing promises for reform in a manner that would have seemed almost unimaginable three months ago in Syria, Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told a news conference the president had not himself ordered his forces to fire on protesters:
“I was a witness to the instructions of His Excellency that live ammunition should not be fired, even if the police, security forces or officers of the state were being killed.”
On Jan 31 Assad had said there was no chance political upheavals then shaking Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Syria.
After Thursday’s announcement, Syrian television showed a large procession of cars in Deraa driving in support of Assad with pictures of the president plastered on the vehicles.
The Baath Party, which has ruled for half a century, will draft laws to provide for media freedoms, and will look at allowing other political movements. The party will also seek to lift living standards and consider ending the rule of emergency law.
Authorities released all those arrested in the Deraa region since the protests erupted, an official statement said but it did not give a figure. The statement also said Assad ordered a 20 to 30 percent salary rise for public employees across Syria.
“When you first hear it you think they’re making major concessions, but when you look at it you realize there’s not a lot there besides the salary boost,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University in the U.S.. “You understand the regime is in a very difficult spot and they’re flustered.”
Security forces opened fire on hundreds of youths on the outskirts of Deraa on Wednesday, witnesses said, after nearly a week of protests in which seven civilians had already died.
The main hospital in Deraa, near the Jordanian border, had received the bodies of at least 37 protesters killed on Wednesday, a hospital official said. That brings the number killed to at least 44 in a week of protests.
About 20,000 people marched on Thursday in the funerals for nine of those killed, chanting freedom slogans and denying official accounts that “armed gangs” were behind the killings and violence.
“Traitors do not kill their own people,” they chanted. “God, Syria, Freedom. The blood of martyrs is not spilled in vain!”
As Syrian soldiers armed patrolled the streets, residents emptied shops of basic goods and said they feared Assad’s government was intent on crushing the revolt by force.
Assad, a close ally of Iran, a key player in neighboring Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel, had dismissed demands for reform in Syria, a country of 20 million.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Damascus; Editing by Matthew Jones