|Thousands of Syrians rallied in support of President Assad in Umayyad Square in Damascus [AFP]|
Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has ordered a new general amnesty for all crimes committed in the country up until June 20, in another apparent attempt to calm months of protests against his rule.
The state news agency, SANA, announced the move on Tuesday, nearly a month after Assad issued a similar amnesty for all political crimes.
“President Assad has issued a decree granting a general amnesty for crimes committed before the date of June 20, 2011,” SANA reported, without giving details.
The president ordered a reprieve on May 31 for all political prisoners in the country, including members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Hundreds of detainees were released, according to rights groups.
But the amnesty decrees are believed to be a part of the overtures by the Syrian government to its opposition, largely seen as symbolic. Rights groups have criticised the amnesty measures, calling them insufficient.
Meanwhile, security forces reportedly shot dead at least four people on Tuesday during clashes between Assad’s loyalists and protesters demanding his removal.
Activists said the victims were killed by army and security forces when they intervened on the side of Assad’s supporters in the cities of Homs and in the town of Mayadeen in Deir al-Zour province near the border with Iraq.
“Security forces opened fire when pro- and anti-government demonstrators came to blows,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said, citing witnesses.
Tens of thousands of pro-Assad demonstrators rallied in central Damascus on Tuesday, news agencies reported.
They gathered in Umayyad Square, waving Syrian flags and the president’s portrait, chanting, “We will sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar!” the AFP news agency said.
Syrian state television also aired footage from pro-Assad demonstrations in Homs, Aleppo, Latakia, Hassake and Deraa.
“The opposition claims that these protesters who are on the streets to support the president are there because they have to, that they were pushed by the government, that they are mostly government employees who have no choice but to be there,” Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon, said.
Our correspondent said it is difficult to measure how much support the president has, but that there clearly are Syrians who support him – especially in the Christian and Alawite minorities.
Tuesday’s developments came a day after Assad addressed the nation in a televised speech in which he acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but said “saboteurs” were exploiting the situation.
Although he called for “national dialogue,” he said, “there is no political solution with those who carry arms and kill”.
President Assad addressed the nation in a televised speech on Monday, pledging more reforms
Protesters took to the streets across Syria on Monday to denounce the speech, saying his address did not meet popular demands for sweeping political reform.
Rallies against Assad were held in major cities including Homs, Hama, Latakia and in Damascus suburbs.
Syria’s opposition dismissed the speech, saying it lacked any clear sign of a transition to true democracy.
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an activist network, said in a statement that the president had turned a “blind eye” to the “new reality” the uprising had created.
The LCC dismissed Assad’s call for dialogue as a way to gain more time.
But Bouthaina Shaaban, a minister in Assad’s government and an adviser to the president, said his reform agenda is based on “what the Syrian people want”.
“Martial law is lifted, there’s committees for new political parties, for new electoral laws, for new media laws.”
“For the last two months he’s met with thousands of people from all over the country, from all walks of life, from all religions, and hence, the president’s vision is based on what the Syrian people want and what the Syrian people need”, she told Al Jazeera.
The Syrian authorities’ bloody crackdown on protests, which rights groups say has killed more than 1,300 civilians, has been met with international condemnation.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Tuesday called for international pressure on Syria’s leadership, but said Iraq-style international intervention would only make matters worse.
Russia has been resistant to a new draft UN resolution condemning Syria’s government.
“We need to apply pressure on the leadership of any country where massive unrest, and especially bloodshed, is happening.”
However, Putin said that “we need to apply pressure on the leadership of any country where massive unrest, and especially bloodshed, is happening.”
He called for a political solution in Syria, and said Russian officials are working on this at the United Nations, without elaborating.
He dismissed talk of a Russian alliance with Syria, saying their close ties dated to the Soviet era and that no “special relationship” remains now with Assad’s regime.
Barack Obama, the US president, spoke with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, on Monday about the situation in Syria, the White House said.
“The leaders agreed that the Syrian government must end the use of violence now and promptly enact meaningful reforms that respect the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people,” the White House said in a statement.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said Assad’s address was “not enough” and urged the president to implement a multi-party system in Syria.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief also described Assad’s speech as “disappointing”.
The EU was preparing to expand its sanctions on Syria in response to worsening violence against opponents of the government, according to a statement agreed by EU foreign ministers.
“President Bashar actually believes that he’s making serious concessions,” David Lesch, a professor of Middle Eastern History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, told Al Jazeera.
“There’s a disconnect between Washington and the rest of the international community and the Syrian regime, in terms of the necessary concessions to make in order to initiate a real national dialogue toward real reform.”