The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday bowed to the most serious and sustained challenge to his authoritarian grip on the country as his regime finally agreed to lift the 48-year state of emergency.
The concession – one of the key demands of demonstrators during weeks of protests against President Assad's 11-year rule – failed to placate opposition leaders, who described it as a sham designed to mask a continued brutal crackdown. To demonstrate legally they will still need permission from the Interior Ministry, and their concerns were heightened by the arrest of the leading opposition figure Mahmoud Issaa in Homs last night.
The cabinet decision, which still needs to be rubber-stamped by Assad, came after a warning broadcast on state television telling demonstrators to end sit-ins and protests. Rights groups said that at least 200 have been killed over the past month as the regime combined vague promises of reform with brutal tactics to quell unrest.
The blunt response from the opposition opened the prospect of a new, more volatile phase of protests. Demonstrators called for the ousting of President Assad in fresh protests last night with thousands chanting: "We want freedom!" in the southern city of Daraa and coastal town of Banias.
The announcement signalling the end of emergency rule came just hours after a show of strength by authorities in Syria's third largest city of Homs. Security forces fired on protesters staging a sit-in in the main square and chased them through the streets for hours. Activists said 17 were killed.
"They shot at everything, there was smoke everywhere," one told the Associated Press. "I saw people on the ground, some shot in their feet, some in the stomach."
The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, urged security forces to exercise "maximum restraint". He said the decision to remove the emergency law was a step in the right direction but it "is only one part of a wider package of necessary reforms. The Syrian authorities should do more to ensure the Syrian people experience real political progress without delay".
The events in Syria have strong echoes of other protests across the Arab world. In Egypt, belated concessions offered by Hosni Mubarak failed to pacify protesters who upped their demands and refused to move from Tahrir Square until he left office. Protesters in Homs on Monday brought mattresses, food and water to Clock Square and vowed not to move until the President was ousted, but they were driven off by security forces.
The Assad regime has labelled the protest movement an "armed insurrection" and a power grab by Islamic extremists. It has also been more successful than in Egypt in keeping foreign media away from protests.
Most of Syria's 23 million people were born or grew up under the state of emergency that, among other things, puts strict control on the media, allows eavesdropping on telecommunications and permits arrests without warrants.
As well as lifting the law, the cabinet also approved the abolition of the state security court, which handled the trials of political prisoners, and backed a new law allowing the right to stage peaceful protests.
"This is all just talk. The protests won't stop until all the demands are met or the regime is gone," the leading opposition figure Haitham Maleh, an 80-year-old former judge, said.
Q&A: Why will the West not act against Syrian authorities?
When the UN decided to take action on Libya, it made the tough business of global diplomacy look easy: sanctions were swiftly imposed; overseas assets of regime figures were frozen; and, within days of UN Resolution 1973, French jets were raining missiles down on Colonel Gaddafi's tanks. But even as Syrian troops open fire on protesters and human rights groups warn that 200 people have been killed since the unrest began, Europe and the US – bullish on Libya just weeks ago – are keeping quiet.
Q. What has the West said about action against Syria?
US officials have so far brushed aside calls for any foreign intervention. The Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "I don't think we have a single policy that fits neatly every single country [in the Middle East]", while Britain's Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said last month: "It is not now the role of the international community to try and intervene directly in every country."
Q. Why was the UN so gung-ho about military action in Libya?
Colonel Gaddafi's response to the uprising against his rule – unleashing tanks, heavy weaponry and air attacks on his own citizens – was ferocious. He managed to alienate his Arab allies, meaning the US and Europe could count on Muslim support for the operation, without which military action would have been unlikely. Crucially, says Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute, world leaders thought they had a good chance of swift success, with the early fighting appearing to favour the rebels.
Q. Why the caution over Syria?
Any military action against Syria would be a far tougher prospect with far fewer benefits. With no Arab support, the West would risk further inflaming anger in the Islamic world. And despite his anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric, countries have found President Bashar al-Assad easier to deal with then his father, who ruled before him. Syria's neighbours would not be keen to see President al-Assad fall, immediately unleashing instability in Syria, especially given the presence of Islamist groups which could fill a void in the absence of any viable opposition parties.
Q. What are the practical barriers to military action?
The US and European armies are bogged down in Libya, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to be a drain on resources. And while Libya's main coastal cities are in easy reach of European military bases, Syria's location and geography present greater strategic problems. Its armed forces are also tougher and more professional than Gaddafi's. And although there have been deaths on the ground, the scale of the regime's crackdown may not be quite brutal enough for the West to risk another quagmire. "The number of deaths has to be matched by the prospect of success," says Mr Joshi.
Q. What could the international community do next?
Further economic sanctions against the regime would be the most plausible next step. The Washington Post, meanwhile, has cited diplomatic cables showing that US officials are funnelling money to Syrian dissidents, although the White House denies it is trying to stoke up unrest.
Q. What about Bahrain?
As in the case of Syria, there are strategic reasons why the West is not keen on military action against Bahrain. It is home to the US Fifth Fleet and on a strategic sea lane from the Gulf oil fields. The US also worries that the fall of the Sunni government could lead to more influence from Shia Iran.