Syrian activists regroup after deadly crackdown

 Despite promises of reform, Syrian security forces arrested Mahmoud Issa, a prominent opposition figure and former political prisoner, on Tuesday hours after the cabinet approved a bill to rescind emergency rule.

“The city is still mourning its dead,” said a political activist who gave his name as Abu Haydar, speaking by telephone from Homs. “There are security forces everywhere, in ever corner of the city and it is not clear what is going to happen, but we are preparing for demonstrations on Friday.”

On Tuesday, the government tried to placate protesters with declarations of sweeping reform while also issuing harsh threats of reprisals if demonstrations did not come to an end, as one of the Arab world’s most repressive countries struggled to blunt the most serious challenge to the 40-year rule of the Assad family.

The mix of concession and coercion came hours after the police, army and the other forces of an authoritarian state were marshaled to crush one of the biggest gatherings yet by protesters bent on staging an Egyptian-style sit-in in Homs, Syria’s third largest city. At least two people died, protesters said, as the government cleared the square.

The events punctuated a tumultuous day in a monthlong uprising that, like Egypt’s, has the potential to rework the arithmetic of a Middle East shaken with dissent. While Syria lacks Egypt’s population or even Libya’s wealth, its influence has long been strong in the region, given its location, its alliance with Iran and its status as kingmaker in Lebanon.

The complexity of its standing means that the government of President Bashar al-Assad finds advocates in the most divergent of places — from the Shiite Muslim movement of Hezbollah in Lebanon to some quarters in Israel.

The reforms were promised Saturday by Assad, but had yet to be articulated until Tuesday, when the government announced the repeal of an emergency law in place since the Baath Party seized power in 1963. The repeal must still be approved by Parliament or Assad, but that amounts to a formality.

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