Test for Assad and Syria comes today after calls for mass rallies

Government adviser says: 'If there are no protests, or just small demonstrations, then the authorities have won and this has ended. But if there are bigger protests, then the country will be walking along an unknown path.'

DAMASCUS // President Bashar al Assad's refusal to make quick political concessions in the face of an unprecedented public uprising will be tested today in what is likely to be a critical 24 hours in determining Syria's fate.

The country has been tense since Wednesday afternoon when, in a highly anticipated speech, Mr al Assad defied broad expectations that he would announce immediate major reforms and, instead, labelled protests an act of foreign conspiracy that he was prepared to fight against.

In response, anti-government demonstrators have called for mass rallies nationwide today - internet forums have dubbed it "Martyrs' Day" - saying Mr al Assad had failed to meet even their minimum hopes for increased freedoms and civil liberties.

An adviser to the government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "Friday will decide everything, if there are no protests, or just very small demonstrations, then the authorities have won and this has ended. But if there are bigger protests, then the country will be walking along an unknown path." .

A Syrian political analyst said the authorities had gambled on the president having a wide base of public support - the silent majority - while facing down hardcore protesters by refusing to show any sign of weakness under pressure.

"The government has made its move, and now the people will make theirs," he said, also on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the comments. "If Syrians stay in their homes on Friday it means they have accepted it will be business as usual. If there are larger protests than we saw last week, then it means this will all escalate."

While no concrete political reforms were outlined by Mr al Assad in his Wednesday speech, yesterday he issued three decrees that appeared designed to address some of the demands protesters have made, including calls to scrap repressive emergency laws.

One of the presidential orders established a committee of senior lawyers to draw up new legislation that will preserve "the country's security, the dignity of citizens and combat terrorism" in preparation for the lifting of the state of emergency. The committee has been told to complete its work before April 25,

Syria has been governed under martial law since the ruling Baath party seized power in 1963. The measure has been justified on the grounds of an ongoing war with Israel, but has been used in practice to jail thousands of political dissidents and regime critics.

Yesterday's second decree established a judicial committee to investigate killings in Deraa and Latakia, where dozens of protesters have been fatally shot by security forces, according to human rights monitors. The government says security officers have also been killed and has blamed militant Islamic groups for the deaths.

That decree goes further than a previous presidential order to investigate four fatal shootings in Deraa, 100 kilometres south of Damascus, on March 18, when security units used live ammunition against civilian protesters. It was that incident which ignited a wave of unrest that subsequently spread across the country and which has come to pose the most serious threat to Mr al Assad's 11-year rule. The third order issued on Wednesday established another committee to study the case of some 300,000 stateless Kurds - Syrians who have lived without nationality or basic rights since a 1962 census in 1962 declared them to be foreigners. A deadline of April 15 was given for the committee to report back to Mr al Assad, before "suitable' legal steps are taken.

If stateless Kurds are given Syrian nationality, it would address an issue for which Syria has been criticised by the international community for years. It might also ensure that Kurds, long seen as a community willing to rebel against the central authorities, refrain from joining the protests that have rocked Syria since the Deraa shootings.

These various steps towards reform may help to prevent a further escalation of public protests today. If, however, that escalation does occur, with the president himself now having called for demonstrations to end, continued protests seem likely to face zero tolerance from Syria's myriad security agencies.

Events in the port city of Latakia since the speech provide some indication of what may be coming. On Wednesday, after Mr al Assad addressed the nation, angry demonstrators took to the streets again and, according to unconfirmed reports from human-rights groups, came under fire from government forces.

The authorities have not commented on the incident but have said that while they will not shoot at peaceful protesters, they will fight the "armed gangs" and "instigators" they say are responsible for the violence.

Military units have been deployed to Latakia amid fears that a sectarian conflict could erupt between Syria's Sunni majority and the Allawite community, the minority Shiite sect that wields power in the country.

Syria is the latest in a line of autocratic Middle Eastern countries to face popular uprisings, which have already resulted in the toppling of well-established, apparently stable regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

Mr al Assad insists that events in Syria are not part of that trend, blaming a small group of foreign agitators for hijacking legitimate calls for reform. He has said that, while political reforms will take place, they will not be hurried and must be preceded by economic liberalisation.