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Diplomats say Syria's al-Assad should act now

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
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  • Diplomats say this week is key for al-Assad
  • He has promised reforms and lifting Syria's 48-year-old state-of-emergency law
  • Diplomats say if al-Assad does not act, they expect renewed momentum behind protests

Washington (CNN) -- Senior U.S. and Western diplomats say although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's recent speech on lifting the country's long-standing state of emergency struck a conciliatory tone and he has promised to lift the law, he now needs to implement reforms and stop his government's security crackdown.

The diplomats suggest that the range of reform options have struck a sweet spot that appeals to a healthy number of Syrians on the middle ground, who are eager for reforms but who do not necessarily want the regime out because they are afraid of the country falling apart. The balance might work for al-Assad, they say if he implements the reforms and avoids a massive security crack down.

Since he has agreed to make changes, al-Assad also indicated there is no need for further protests, and therefore any future demonstrations will require a permit. It remains to be seen what happens on the streets.

Syria's Cabinet passed a bill abolishing the country's notorious state-of-emergency law as another day of clashes erupted in the simmering country's heartland, Syrian media reported Tuesday.

Al-Assad has to give the final approval to the move, according to analysts.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday it is unclear whether there is legislation actually lifting the emergency law. He maintained a new law requiring protesters to obtain permits "may prove as restrictive as the security law it replaced." He also pointed to increased shooting at protesters by security forces, saying it raises "serious concerns."

The diplomats say while the al-Assad regime is brittle and his Allowite power base is thin beyond a narrow band of loyalists, there has been no turning against the government by the major security services as happened in Cairo, when Egyptian police eventually left the streets. However, the diplomats predict if things don't go back to normal, the security services might get tired and some of them will inevitably give up.

The envoys see this week as key for al-Assad to deliver on his promises and implement the reforms. If by the end of the week he does not, they expect renewed momentum behind the protests.