BEIRUT — The Syrian government ratcheted up its efforts to quell weeks of demonstrations Tuesday, firing live ammunition into a crowd of protesters in one city even as it lifted decades-old emergency laws in an attempt to appease its critics.
The actions came in the wake of the boldest, and most organized, anti-government rally in the month-long uprising, with protesters occupying a square in Syria’s third-largest city as they demand an end to the Assad family’s 40-year rule.
Neither side has shown any signs of backing down, and Tuesday’s events seemed to indicate that the struggle is likely to turn deadlier.
In Homs, four people were killed after tens of thousands of demonstrators tried to stage an Egyptian-style sit-in in a main square, activists said. After firing warning shots into the air, security forces fired into the crowd and dispersed it, using tanks to secure the area, according to witness accounts.
Hours later, the government announced an end to despised emergency laws banning large gatherings even as the Interior Ministry issued a statement urging Syrians to refrain from “any mass rallies or demonstrations or sitting-ins under any title.”
Tuesday’s events were a microcosm of earlier cycles of violence and concessions. More than 200 people have been killed in the government crackdown over the past month, human rights groups have reported.
Opposition members said they had no faith in the new package of laws, which assert Syrians’ right to demonstrate but require Information Ministry approval for any demonstrations.
“Where government approval is required and essential, that means you are entering into a new phase of repression,” said Wissam Tarif, director of Insan, a Syrian human rights organization that had an observer in Homs on Tuesday. Tarif added that the reforms lack major components such as the release of political prisoners and an end to immunity for state security personnel.
But the government is unlikely to offer more, said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. In announcing the new laws, he said, “the regime has thrown down the gauntlet. It’s drawn a line in the sand.”
Nor is the opposition likely to back down, he said, adding that the turnout in Homs, a major city populated by Sunnis, Syria’s largest religious group, indicated a turning point in the opposition’s ability to bring middle-class residents out to the streets.
“As long as the revolt has been in agricultural districts . . . the regime can contain them,” he said. But, he said, “the momentum has been gaining, and what happened in Homs was really scary for the regime. It shows that the main urban Sunni population is starting to come out.”
If the protests reach Damascus, the capital of Syria and seat of its wealth, in large numbers, he said, “that’s the gold moment.”
Most Syrians have stayed out of the protests, whether out of loyalty to the government or fear of reprisals or of a chaotic post-Assad nation.
On Tuesday night, 1,000 people demonstrated in Zabadani, a suburb of Damascus, and about 200 students staged a protest at Damascus University earlier in the day, Tarif said. Protests were also reported in Baniyas and Daraa.
It was impossible to independently confirm the events beacuse foreign media have been restricted from reporting in Syria.
If anything, the government’s two-headed approach has seemed to galvanize them.
“If, on the same day that they announce the lifting of emergency laws, they make a decision to prevent peaceful protests, what does that mean?” said Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights activist and lawyer in Damascus. “Now, ordinary people are making jokes about the new laws, because they don’t believe it anymore.”
President Bashar al-Assad, 45, who became president after the death of his father in 2000, belongs to the minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shiite Islam. His father, Hafez al-Assad, an Air Force general, came to power in 1971 in the aftermath of a military coup.
His government has blamed the uprising on armed “criminal gangs” and on Islamist extremists, and it has accused protesters of being supported by foreign agents. On Monday, Syrian state television pointed repeatedly to a Washington Post report on U.S. aid to Syrian dissidents as evidence of foreign interference, activists said.
Protesters have largely eschewed violence, but in at least two cases — on Saturday in Baniyas and Tuesday morning in Homs — individual protesters have fired at security forces, Tarif said.
Landis said such incidents are likely to increase as violence against protesters escalates. “It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be brutal,” he said.
The Assad government, he added, “has been repressive for 40 years. People are angry, and people are going to be looking for a chance to bring it down, and they don’t want to play patty-cake.”