Shots fired as Syrian protesters take to the streets again

Within hours of President Bashar al-Assad's speech yesterday, 100 or more people went out on to the streets of the port city of Latakia in protest, shouting "Freedom!". Residents said they heard shots fired in the old al-Sleibeh district of the city as security forces confronted the demonstrators.

Opposition groups are calling for more protests after Friday prayers tomorrow, while the government will intensify security measures to stop further demonstrations.

Mr Assad's speech offered few concessions. He has not satisfied the protesters' demands or given the impression that the grip on power he and his family hold is weakening.

In his first response to the crisis, Mr Assad said there was "a major conspiracy" against Syria directed from outside the country, although he did not spell out who he believed was behind the plot. The opposition had expected him to introduce reforms, such as ending the state of emergency that has existed since 1963. "We don't seek battles but, if a battle is imposed on us today, we welcome it," the President said in a televised speech. Among those he blamed for provoking the violence were satellite television channels.

It may be that there are serious divisions in the leadership about how to respond to the protests. Mr Assad's adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, said last week that a committee had been formed to study a series of reforms, including lifting emergency laws. Even so, the security apparatus is unlikely to be restrained by the letter of the law.

If the Syrian regime is seriously weakened by the turmoil, and unable to bring it under control, there will be a radical change in the balance of power in the Middle East. The losers will be Iran, since Syria is its one reliable ally in the Arab world; Hezbollah in Lebanon, which relies on Syrian backing; and Hamas in Gaza, which has been able to use Damascus as a headquarters. Israel and the US, at least in the short term, will be the winners.

Mr Assad did concede that the Syrian people "have demands that have not been met", adding: "If we stay without reform we are on the course of destruction." But he appears to be thinking of incremental change to the way the regime operates and not to any reduction in its authority. He claimed that some protesters had been "duped" into the streets, while others' legitimate demands would be met.