Dozens have died in pro-democracy protests in the southern city of Deraa and nearby Sanamein, Latakia, Damascus and other towns over the last week. The government blames armed groups for setting off the bloodshed.
Soldiers took to the streets of Latakia on Saturday night to help secret police and security forces control the port, residents said. The army also beefed up checkpoints around Deraa, where Human Rights Watch says 61 people have died.
“There is a feeling in Latakia that the presence of disciplined troops is necessary to keep order,” one resident told Reuters. “We do not want looting.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday the United States deplored the bloodshed in Syria but a Libya-style intervention should not be expected.
The unrest in Syria came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for scrawling graffiti inspired by pro-democracy protests across the Arab world. People marched, chanting: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries.
Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, made a public pledge Thursday to look into granting greater freedom but this has failed to dampen protests, emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told Al Jazeera news network the emergency law hated by Syrian reformists for the far-reaching powers it gives to security services will be lifted, but did not give a timetable.
In another move to placate protesters, Syrian authorities Sunday released a lawyer, Diana Jawabra, along with 15 others who were arrested for taking part in a silent protest demanding the release of the children responsible for the graffiti.
This follows news of the freeing of 260 political prisoners.
Assad also faces calls to curb a pervasive security apparatus, develop rule of law and freedom of expression, free political prisoners and reveal the fate of tens of thousands of dissidents who disappeared in the 1980s.
Syria’s establishment is dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam to which the Assads belong, a fact that causes resentment among Sunni Muslims who make up some three-quarters of the population. Latakia is mostly Sunni Muslim but has significant numbers of Alawites.
“An official source said attacks by armed elements on the families and districts of Latakia in the last two days resulted in the martyrdom of 10 security forces and civilians and the killing of two of the armed elements,” SANA news agency said.
The source said 200 people, most of whom were from the security forces, were wounded in clashes. Rights activists told Reuters at least six people were killed in Latakia in two days.