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Assad's speech may buy time, but not survival

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave his first speech in two months today, offering elections and reforms this summer in an apparent bid to secure the patience of Syria's silent majority.

By Correspondent / June 20, 2011

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks in Damascus on June 20, in this photo. Assad, facing three months of protests against his rule, said on Monday a 'national dialogue' would start soon.

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Beirut

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad offered promises of imminent elections and reforms today as as part of a "national dialogue" process that could lead to a new constitution and possibly end the dominance of the ruling Baath Party.

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But while Mr. Assad acknowledged that Syria has experienced "difficult days" since his last speech two months ago, his framing of the crisis and his proposals for addressing it fell far short of opposition demands. Fresh protests immediately broke out in cities around the country.

“Today, after 98 days of protests, he is living in denial,” says Rami Nakhle, a Syrian working in Beirut with the Local Coordination Committees, a clearinghouse for Syrian opposition protests and activities. “It has become clear to everybody that Bashar al-Assad cannot change. He doesn’t realize that Syria has changed forever but he’s still the same president we heard last time, in April.”

Rather than directly addressing the opposition protest movement, Assad’s comments appeared intended mainly for the silent mass of Syrians who support the call for reforms and greater freedoms, but have chosen not to take to the streets out of fear that the collapse of the Assad regime could plunge the country into sectarian bloodshed.

Assad's promises of change, and talk of parliamentary elections in August and a dialogue with the opposition may help buy the regime some extra time. However, the uprising has shown remarkable durability since it began three months ago, despite a ruthless crackdown by troops and security forces that has left an estimated 1,500 people dead and provoked increasing anger from the international community.

With the opposition showing no signs of scaling back and the international community growing ever more frustrated with the rising violence, analysts say that the Assad regime’s survival is increasingly doubtful.

“I don’t see how Bashar can get out of this in the long-term,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute. “The genie has been let out of the bottle."

Assad: Syria at a 'turning point'

When the clamor for change swept through Tunisia earlier this year then Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, analysts and commentators were united in predicting that Syria would be the one country to evade the consequences of the Arab Spring. Ruled by the Assad dynasty since 1970, the Syrian regime has a long history of ruthlessly stamping out any dissent and maintains order through a pervasive network of intelligence agencies.

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