Syria tries to placate Sunnis and Kurds

The New York Times reports:

The government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria offered several unusual gestures on Wednesday intended to earn it good will among Sunnis and Kurds.

The government announced that Syria’s first and only casino, which had enraged Islamists when it opened on New Year’s Eve, would be closed. It also said that schoolteachers who had been dismissed last year for wearing the niqab, a type of face veil, would be allowed back to work.

These concessions and others were made public as activists were calling for renewed demonstrations to be held on Thursday, which is the 64th anniversary of the formation of the Baath Party, which has been in power since 1963. Protests demanding expanded political rights and a multiparty democracy have spread to cities across Syria over the last three weeks, posing a highly unusual challenge to Mr. Assad.

Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian writer and activist who was a childhood friend of Mr. Assad’s, said that about 1,200 women would be affected by the niqab decision, which was the most immediately significant result of a meeting Tuesday between Mr. Assad and a popular Islamist leader, Said Ramadan al-Bouti.

Other concessions offered at the meeting, Mr. Abdel Nour said, included permission to create an Islamist satellite channel and to form an Islamist political party. The party, he said, would be similar to the AKP in Turkey.

“It will be a moderate Islamist party loyal to the regime,” Mr. Abdel Nour said. “This is a very important deal. The regime is trying to weaken the demonstrators.”

Mr. Assad also promised to give citizenship to stateless people within Syria, and to make a national holiday of the Kurdish New Year’s festival Nayrouz, Mr. Abdel Nour said. An estimated 200,000 Kurds living in Syria are stateless, international human rights groups said.

“If the Islamists and the Kurds enter the demonstrations, the regime will lose control,” Mr. Abdel Nour said. “The president is trying to delay the big explosion.”

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