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Assad fires Cabinet in Syria Move unlikely to end protests

Facing an extraordinary wave of popular dissent, Syrian President Bashar Assad fired his Cabinet on Tuesday 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. They came as the government mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters in rallies in the capital Damascus and elsewhere, in an effort to show it has wide popular backing.

Nearly every aspect of Syrian society is monitored and controlled by the security forces, 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 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, a leading human rights activist.

"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," Nuaisse said.

The coming days will be key to determining whether Assad's concessions will quiet the protest movement.

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.

Tensions remained high in Daraa, where several hundred people were still staging a sit-in Tuesday, 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 both concessions and brutal crackdowns.

The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

Syria has long been viewed by the United States as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical groups.

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