DAMASCUS, Syria, (AP) – Syria’s Cabinet resigned Tuesday to help quell a wave of popular fury that erupted more than a week ago, threatening President Bashar Assad’s 11-year rule in one of the most authoritarian nations in the Middle East.
Assad, whose family has controlled Syria for four decades, is trying to calm the growing dissent with a string of overtures. He is expected to address the nation in the next 24 hours to lift emergency laws in place since 1963 and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.
Mass protests exploded nationwide on Friday, touched off by the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Daraa. Security forces launched a swift crackdown, opening fire in at least six locations around the country — including the capital, Damascus, and the country’s main port of Latakia.
More than 60 people have died since March 18 as security forces cracked down on protesters, Human Rights Watch said.
State TV said Tuesday Assad accepted the resignation of the 32-member Cabinet headed by Naji al-Otari, who has been in place since September 2003. The Cabinet will continue running the country’s affairs until the formation of a new government.
The resignations will not affect Assad, who holds the lion’s share of power in the authoritarian regime.
The announcement came hours after hundreds of thousands of supporters of Syria’s hard-line regime poured into the streets Tuesday as the government tried to show it has mass support.
“The people want Bashar Assad!” chanted protesters in a central Damascus square. Men, women and children gathered in front of a huge picture of Assad freshly put up on the Central Bank building.
The anti-government protests and ensuing violence have brought sectarian tensions in Syria out in the open for the first time in decades, a taboo topic here because the country has a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam. Assad has placed his fellow Alawites into most positions of power in Syria.
But he also has used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes, while punishing dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.
Many of the pro-regime demonstrators emphasized national unity Tuesday.
“Sectarianism was never an issue before, this is a conspiracy targeting Syria,” said Jinane Adra, a 36-year-old Syrian who came from Saudi Arabia to express support for Assad.
“The Syrian people are one, there is no place for religious divisions between us,” she said, flanked by her children, ages 3 and 5, carrying red roses and pictures of Assad.
Mohammed Ali, 40, said Assad was in touch with the Syrian people and aware of their need for reforms.
“This dirty conspiracy will be short-lived, we are all behind him,” he said, cradling an Assad poster on his chest.
The unrest in the strategically important country could have implications well beyond the country’s 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 U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Mideast. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.
But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The U.S. recently has reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — although the effort has not yielded much.
The government-sanctioned rallies Tuesday dubbed “loyalty to the nation march” brought hundreds of thousands into the streets in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Hasakeh in the north and the central cities of Hama and Homs. School children were given the day off and bank employees and other workers were given two hours off to attend the demonstrations.
Still, many in Syria who see Assad as a young, dynamic leader and credit him for opening up the economy were shocked by the violence and came to express genuine support.
When unrest roiling the Middle East hit Syria, it was a dramatic turn for Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who inherited power from his father in 2000 after three decades of iron-fisted rule. In January, he said his country is immune to such unrest because he is in tune with his people’s needs.