DAMASCUS (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad defied expectations on Wednesday that he would lift Syria's decades-old emergency law after nearly two weeks of protests that have presented the gravest challenge to his 11-year rule.
Speaking in public for the first time since the start of the unprecedented wave of protests, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, Assad said he supported reform but offered no new commitment to change Syria's rigid, one-party political system.
"Staying without reforms is destructive to the country," Assad said, without elaborating on a pledge by his adviser Bouthaina Shaaban last week that the president would look into lifting the emergency law.
Ending that law, imposed after the 1963 coup which elevated Assad's Baath Party to power, has been a central demand of the protesters. More than 60 people have been killed as security forces sought to quell demonstrations, often using live ammunition.
Emergency law has been used to stifle political opposition, justify arbitrary arrest and give free rein to a pervasive security apparatus in the country of 22 million, which is allied with Iran and supports militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
Assad spoke a day after tens of thousands of Syrians joined government-organised rallies across the country in a mass outpouring of loyalty to the 45-year-old leader who became president in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad.
Assad accepted the resignation of his cabinet on Tuesday, but sacking the government is seen as a cosmetic change since it wields little authority in Syria, where power is concentrated in the hands of the Assad family and security apparatus.
Arbitrary arrests have continued across Syria in large numbers since Shaaban said Assad was considering scrapping the emergency law, according to lawyers and activists.
Assad said that a minority of people had tried to "spark chaos" in the southern city of Deraa, center of recent protests, but that they would be thwarted by the majority.
He also said that clear instructions had been issued to security forces not to harm anyone during the protests.
Protesters at first limited their demands to more freedoms but, increasingly incensed by a security crackdown on them, they later demanded the "downfall of the regime."
Deraa is a center of tribes belonging to Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom resent the power and wealth amassed by the elite of Assad's Alawite minority.
Assad said opponents were trying to spread sectarian strife. "Syria today is being subjected to a big conspiracy," he told parliamentarians, who frequently interrupted his speech with applause and shouts of support.
Assad's crackdown on protests has drawn international condemnation, including from the United States and from neighboring Turkey, an ally. But Syria is unlikely to face the kind of foreign military intervention seen in Libya.
The British-educated Assad was welcomed as a "reformer" when he replaced his long-ruling father. He allowed a short-lived "Damascus Spring" in which he tolerated debates that faulted Syria's autocratic system, but later cracked down on critics.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Dominic Evans; Editing by Mark Heinrich)