It is reported to be the biggest single amnesty for three years. The official Sana news agency said it was part of an "open and tolerant policy".
Those freed are thought be Islamist activists from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The head of the Syria's Human Rights Association welcomed the move, but said President Bashar al-Assad should have freed all political detainees.
Haitham al-Maleh said some of those set free had been held for more than 10 years.
The question, as always, is why now? The Brotherhood was long considered the regime's greatest threat; it appeals to the Sunni majority and was the only social force to show any real opposition to Alawi-dominated the military regime. At its peak between 1978 and 1982, it was quite a formidable force. So much that the regime sent out squads of "socialist women" to rip the veils off conservative women. That all ended with the Hama massacre in 1982, when between 15,000 and 40,000 people died after the army bombed the town of Hama when the Brothers took control of it.
In other Syria news, a new English-language publication has come out there, Syria Today. Several of the founders are friends of mine, and I wish them good luck. But expect this to be a mostly economic publication (as the first issue is), as I doubt there is the margin of movement for the press to deal with substantial political questions. Still, it's a beginning and should provide interesting information about the business elite in that untransparent country.
Also, the Washington Post has a story quoting US military intelligence saying that the Iraqi insurgency may be directed from Syria by Baathists who found refuge there. However, not everyone is buying that:
Some U.S. officials in Baghdad resented the briefing, which they saw not only as a form of long-distance micromanagement but also as misguided in its recommendations. For example, some fear that it could lead to a resumption of the tough tactics used sometimes last year as the insurgency emerged, such as taking families hostage to compel an insurgent leader to turn himself in. Subsequent internal Army reviews have criticized such tactics as counterproductive.
One person familiar with the situation said that Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. general in the region, was sent a copy of the briefing and responded by sending a classified cable politely dismissing it and stating that he believes that U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq have the situation in hand. A spokesman at Abizaid's headquarters, the U.S. Central Command, declined to comment on that exchange.
Neither Lawrence T. Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, nor Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, the spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had any comment for this article.
Pentagon Kremlinologists will have a field day with this. Also, I wasn't aware that the US army was using tactics like "taking families hostage to compel an insurgent leader to turn himself in."