CAIRO — The Syrian government said Thursday that it would consider sweeping reforms in a gambit to appease protesters, who gathered by the thousands after security forces in one southern town killed at least 15 people in a week of demonstrations.
The move was the latest sign that even a closed-off police state isn't immune to the rebellion coursing through the Middle East, and it came as the United States issued a stinging criticism of the harsh security crackdown of the past week.
Tens of thousands of people chanted, "Syria! Freedom!" at funerals Thursday for some of the victims of clashes in the city of Daraa, according to witnesses and amateur video that was posted online and broadcast on regional news channels.
The Obama administration on Thursday issued a strong condemnation of Syria's "brutal repression of demonstrations," and said the arbitrary arrests of human rights activists and others "deeply troubled" it. It demanded that "those responsible for the violence must be held accountable." The State Department issued a travel alert for Syria, cautioning U.S. citizens to avoid demonstrations and even to avoid conversations about politics, religion and other social issues, as they "could lead to arrest."
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Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, like other embattled authoritarian regimes, up to now has portrayed protesters as thugs and religious extremists. But on Thursday, it acknowledged that some opposition demands were legitimate and would be addressed by national political and economic reforms.
Buthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to the president, told a news conference in the capital, Damascus, that the government would consider lifting the emergency law that's been in place nearly 50 years and might begin to license political parties. She added that other proposed reforms would address unemployment, bring more media freedom and increase salaries for civil servants. State news media also reported that all protesters detained in the past week's violence would be released.
Syrian pro-democracy activists rejected the announcements as insufficient and issued calls for record crowds to demonstrate after midday prayers Friday.
"We've heard it all for 10 years now. ... This president talks a lot but, in practice, nothing happens," Haitham al Maleh, a prominent dissident who spent years in prison, said by phone from Damascus. "If you have a whole building to clean, do you just sweep the stairway? In Syria, we need to clean the whole building."
They are wary for a reason. Syria has operated since 1963 under an emergency law that gives broad powers to the military and the notorious internal security apparatus. Dissidents have been imprisoned, tortured and even executed in public. Assad, who succeeded his father by unopposed referendum in 2000, has promised reform before, but little has ever materialized.
The unrest in Daraa erupted after authorities detained a group of schoolchildren for spray-painting revolutionary slogans, provoking running street battles in which security forces reportedly fired live ammunition. Video footage showed lifeless bodies in the streets of Daraa and large-scale marches by residents.
Shaaban, the government adviser, said she personally heard the president order that no protesters were to be shot. However, the authorities didn't rule out operations against what the regime calls foreign-backed "criminal gangs" that it said sought to sow instability in the country.
Syrian opposition supporters said the distinction was absurd.
At first, political analysts who monitor Syria were reluctant to link the seemingly isolated incidents in Daraa to the regional upheaval that's toppled longtime rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and threatens the autocratic regimes of Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.
But protesters immediately connected the Syrian struggle to the freedom movements in other Arab nations. Inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the region, Syrian activists — almost all speaking only on the condition of anonymity to evade authorities — said they were ready to break through the fear barrier to demand tangible reforms from their government.
"This is a tsunami of change and we're part of it, part of the Middle East," Maleh said.
So far, only a few hundred protesters have gathered in cities besides Daraa, and they were far outnumbered by security forces that quickly broke up the gatherings. Witnesses said protesters were beaten with truncheons and that authorities dragged off some female demonstrators by their hair.
Even the modest protest attempts were remarkable in a country known as one of the most repressive in the Arab world. Syria has Internet censorship, a long history of using brute force to quash dissent and no independent media.
Syrian activists say that at least 15 people have died in Daraa, where a security crackdown has sealed off the city and reportedly severed basic services. Government figures put the death toll at 10 after fierce clashes Wednesday, though some activists claim that 25 or more people have died and many others are missing.
The figures couldn't be verified because Syrian authorities have barred independent reporters from Daraa and many residents are fearful of government reprisals if they speak candidly to foreign journalists.
In addition to crackdowns on demonstrators and human rights advocates who have spoken out about the fledgling protest movement, it appears that the Syrian government has increased its usual security operations. An activist who lives in neighboring Lebanon said that when he reached friends on the phone, they'd either been taken by security forces or were too afraid to speak.
"I called two friends and someone else answered both times. I called another friend, who wanted to send me a message, and I understand that what he wanted to tell me was that we couldn't talk about anything" except pleasantries, the activist said.
Another activist in Damascus who was reached via Facebook replied in an elaborate code, with truncated words, hints of unrest in the Kurdish minority and references to Assad only as "the top dude."
Some Syrian activists said on Twitter that their Facebook accounts had been hacked and their profile pictures replaced with photos of the president.
(A McClatchy special correspondent who isn't named for security reasons contributed to this article from Syria.)
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