Image: Pro-Assad Syrians shout slogans as they carry pictures of the president during a sit-in in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sunday.
Bilal Hussein  /  AP
Pro-Assad Syrians shout slogans as they carry pictures of the president during a sit-in in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sunday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/29/2011 10:38:26 AM ET 2011-03-29T14:38:26

Syria's Cabinet resigned Tuesday to help quell a wave of popular fury that erupted more than a week ago and is now threatening President Bashar Assad's 11-year rule in one of the most authoritarian and closed-off nations in the Middle East.

Assad, whose family has controlled Syria for four decades, is trying to calm the growing dissent with a string of concessions. He is expected to address the nation in the next 24 hours to lift emergency laws in place since 1963 and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.

More than 60 people have died since March 18 as security forces cracked down on protesters, Human Rights Watch said.

State TV said Tuesday Assad accepted the resignation of the 32-member Cabinet headed by Naji al-Otari, who has been in place since September 23. The Cabinet will continue running the country's affairs until the formation of a new government.

The resignations will not affect Assad, who holds the lion's share of power in the authoritarian regime.

The announcement came hours after hundreds of thousands of supporters of Syria's hard-line regime poured into the streets Tuesday as the government tried to show it has mass support.

Lawyers arrested
Separately, authorities have arrested four lawyers who supported the unprecedented protests demanding political freedoms, rights defenders said.

Hussein Issa, one of the lawyers arrest over the past days, was detained Sunday outside the Palace of Justice in the Syrian capital, activists said.

Issa was leaving the compound after submitting papers in defense of protesters who staged a silent demonstration for the release of political prisoners and of 15 children arrested in Deraa for writing freedom slogans on school walls, they said.

The silent protest in Marjeh Square in Damascus took place two days before the demonstrations erupted in Deraa on March 18.

Video: Americans detained amid Syrian unrest (on this page)

A lawyer from Deraa, Thamer al-Jahmani, was also arrested on Sunday after he made statements to the press in support of his home city. Two lawyers, Suleiman al-Nahili and Nidal al-Sheikh Hamoud, were arrested as they marched on Friday in a demonstration in the city of Homs in support of Deraa.

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Syria's ruling hierarchy has a history of imprisoning lawyers, despite condemnation of the practice by the International Lawyers Union and international rights group.

Story: Eyewitness: Gunfire, tear gas in Syrian city

Leading lawyers Anwar al-Bunni and Mohannad al-Hussani, who have spent their life defending political prisoners, are serving five and three-year sentences respectively for "weakening national morale."

The two are winners of prestigious rights awards, together with 80-year-old lawyer and former judge Haitham al-Maleh, who spent nearly a year in jail before he was released under an amnesty marking the anniversary of the coup which brought the Baath Party to power.

Sectarian tensions
The protests and ensuing violence have brought sectarian tensions in Syria out in the open for the first time in decades, a taboo topic here because the country has a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam. Assad has placed his fellow Alawites into most positions of power in Syria.

Video: Huge demonstrations in Syria (on this page)

But he also has used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes, while punishing dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.

Many of the pro-regime demonstrators emphasized national unity Tuesday.

"Sectarianism was never an issue before, this is a conspiracy targeting Syria," said Jinane Adra, a 36-year-old Syrian who came from Saudi Arabia to express support for Assad.

"The Syrian people are one, there is no place for religious divisions between us," she said, flanked by her children, ages 3 and 5, carrying red roses and pictures of Assad.

Mohammed Ali, 40, said Assad was in touch with the Syrian people and aware of their need for reforms.

"This dirty conspiracy will be short-lived, we are all behind him," he said, cradling an Assad poster on his chest.

Anti-Western
The president of 11 years, one of the most anti-Western leaders in the Middle East, is wavering between cracking down and compromising in the face of the protests that began in a southern city and spread to other areas.

The unrest in the strategically important country could have implications well beyond the country's borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

Story: New test for US: Unrest in Syria, Jordan

Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Mideast. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

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But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The U.S. recently has reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — although the effort has not yielded much.

The government-sanctioned rallies Tuesday dubbed "loyalty to the nation march" brought hundreds of thousands into the streets in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Hasakeh in the north and the central cities of Hama and Homs. School children were given the day off and bank employees and other workers were given two hours off to attend the demonstrations.

Still, many in Syria who see Assad as a young, dynamic leader and credit him for opening up the economy were shocked by the violence and came to express genuine support.

"The people want Bashar Assad!" chanted protesters in a central Damascus square. Men, women and children gathered in front of a huge picture of Assad freshly put up on the Central Bank building.

"No to sectarianism and no to civil strife," read one placard.

When unrest roiling the Middle East hit Syria, it was a dramatic turn for Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who inherited power from his father in 2000 after three decades of iron-fisted rule. In January, he said his country is immune to such unrest because he is in tune with his people's needs

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Americans detained amid Syrian unrest

  1. Closed captioning of: Americans detained amid Syrian unrest

    >>> in syria , witnesses say army units have deployed in key areas of a seaside mediterranean city rocked by protests. troops reportedly stormed in the city with army vehicles overnight after a day of violence and chaos. and as more protests erupt across the country, one father in vermont says his missing 21-year-old son has been found safe in syrian custody. he is one of two americans captured by syrian authorities as the protests broke out. the government has been blaming foreigners for the country's unrest. joining me on the phone are the parents of teik rute. thank you for joining me. i'm glad you guys are here and i'm glad you have at least some good news because you found out the whereabouts of teak. how did you find out, tom?

    >> i found out yesterday through senator pat leahy 's office of vermont who informed me 10:00 yesterday morning and it was confirmed yesterday that he was in the custody of the syrians and they knew where he was. and now we have to just work on getting him from their custody to american custody.

    >> okay. what about the circumstances, andy, about how tiek went missing, what do you know about that?

    >> we know very little about that. we've gotten pretty sketchy details to this point. we know he was last seen on friday, march 18th . his roommate was, i think, probably the last one to see him. he was opposed to rendezvous with a friend who was visiting from out of town and never made that meeting. we think he was probably walking around the old city when he was detained. he may have been too close to one of the protests that was happening then, but we really have very little information, other than that people knew where he was at about 11:00 on friday morning, and he failed to show up at a 3:30 meeting. so, some time between those two times, he went missing.

    >> went missing, yeah. tom, tell me about your son. i understand he is a junior at middlebury , which means he's a very intelligent young man, but he's been studying over in damascus?

    >> yes. this is part of his junior year abroad, which was supposed to be an entire year in alexandria, egypt, where middlebury runs an arabic program. and of course, because things fell apart in egypt in january, he had to come home, and he and several other college students both from middlebury and around the country, decided that a good option was this arabic program at damascus university . at the time, they and their counselors suggested that syria was probably the most stable place in the middle east . so, nobody saw the fact that there would be the troubles there are now.

    >> andy, being a mom myself, sometimes mother instincts can tell you something. did you have any apprehension at all about him going to damascus?

    >> yeah, i did. i think any time your child leaves his or her bedroom, you start becoming apprehensive.

    >> true.

    >> and syria is, you know, it's a faraway place. it's a place not a lot of westerners travel to, and we had our reservations, but i think we trusted his ability to travel broadly. he speaks arabic well. the program he was attending seems like a good program, so we sort of put our worries aside and put our trust in his common sense and his good judgment.

    >> and tom, what do you know about the conditions in which he's being detained?

    >> we really know nothing. we hear words like he's safe and he's healthy, so we are taking those at face value right now, assuming he is those. you know, who knows for sure. but we're getting some very good information out of the syrian embassy in washington. the ambassador there has been incredible. he's been very forthcoming and we trust what he's telling us. so, we assume he's in good shape and has been treated well as of now.

    >> all right. tom root and andi lloyd, we are thinking of you as well as your son. thank you for speaking with us.

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