Beirut: Syria`s President said Saturday he expects state of emergency laws that have been in effect for nearly 50 years to be lifted by next week at the latest, a key demand by a monthlong protest movement that has posed the most serious challenge to the authoritarian regime.
In his second public appearance since the protests began, President Bashar Assad warned there will no longer be "an excuse" for organizing protests after Syria lifts the emergency laws and implements reforms.
"After that, we will not tolerate any attempt at sabotage," he told the newly formed Cabinet in a televised address.
Syria`s widely despised emergency laws have been in place since the ruling Baath party came to power in 1963, giving the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and extending state authority into virtually every aspect of Syrians` lives.
The protest movement has been steadily growing over the past four weeks and swelled Friday to the largest and most widespread gatherings to date as tens of thousands of people made a bold march toward the capital, Damascus.
The protesters demanded concrete reforms even as Assad`s security services launched a bloody crackdown. More than 200 people have been killed in the government crackdown on protesters over the past four weeks, rights groups say.
Assad has tried to calm the protests with promises of reform, such as forming committees to look into replacing the emergency laws and freeing detainees. He also fired his Cabinet — a move that was largely symbolic, as the real power in Syria is concentrated around Assad and a tight coterie of family and advisers.
The protesters say the gestures are not nearly enough.
Syria`s government and its state-run media have sought to cast the unrest as a foreign conspiracy perpetrated by armed gangs targeting security forces and civilians. Reform activists, however, say their movement is peaceful.
In his speech Saturday, Assad took on a much more conciliatory and serious tone than in his previous speech on March 30, when he failed to announce any clear-cut changes and blamed the protests on a foreign conspiracy.
While reiterating that much of the violence in Syria was the work of a foreign conspiracy, he acknowledged that Syrians have legitimate grievances and an urgent need for reform.
He expressed sorrow at the deaths that have occurred, describing those who were killed as "martyrs." His choice of words and tone appeared to be a subtle nod to protesters who were angered by his perceived lack of sympathy for the dead in his last speech.
Assad acknowledged Syria was passing through a "very critical" phase and said he expects the government to announce lifting the state of emergency laws by next week.
"Contrary to what some people think — that this will destabilize Syria — I think lifting the stage of emergency will boost security in Syria while at the same time safeguarding the dignity of the Syrian people," he said.
He said the new government is also expected to issue among other things a new law allowing formation of political parties and combating corruption.
"After that, there will no longer be an excuse to organize protests in Syria," he said.
"This package in my opinion will lead to expanding participation while increasing freedoms in Syria," he added.
"There is a gap between government institutions and the people, this gap must be closed, we have to open up new channels between us and the people and this can only come through trust building," Assad said.