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Takeaway from Assad's speech? There will be no meaningful dialogue. (+video)

President Bashar al-Assad's first speech in months dashed any hopes that a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war was soon possible.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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Prospects for a negotiated way out of Syria's bloodletting were always scant. But some glimmers of hope came this week, amid signs that the UN was successfully pushing Russia, a key backer of Assad, toward possible talks. Yesterday, Saudi Arabia and Egypt renewed calls for talks, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr saying that "it is up to the Syrian people to decide the conditions of [Assad's] exit from power” and for a "peaceful handover of power."

Zero sum struggle

The problem in Syria remains now as it has long been: The two sides, one a largely Sunni Arab-backed effort against Assad, and Assad's regime, backed by the Alawite minority he belongs to, see themselves as locked in an existential, zero sum struggle. The uprising against him is indeed backed by foreign powers, from the Sunni States of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to foreign fighters drawn from some Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq. Assad, meanwhile, is receiving support from Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite military and political movement in Lebanon.

With the danger of sectarian bloodletting in Syria in the event of a victory for Assad's opponents, Assad and his allies have their backs against the wall, and their reluctance to capitulate is perfectly understandable. For the rebels, with so many tens of thousands dead, not to mention the regime's history of blanket reprisals against towns and cities and the decades-long practice of torture used against opponents of the state, capitulation is also a grim prospect. 

In parts, Assad's speech appeared willfully out of touch with the nature of the uprising against him. In his telling, he's standing firm against a foreign plot to "fragment" the country. He said his opponents are "the enemies of God" and vowed they would be dispatched "to hell."

The takeaway from Assad's speech is that little has changed and that the fighting will go on. Though rebels have made important gains in parts of the country in recent months, there has been nothing like an inexorable march on the capital. Regimes, when they fall, do so suddenly, but with Syria's war now in its third calender year, and the spine of the regime still strong, the best bet is that this bloody war will drag on.

The Syrian people are left waiting for some kind of decisive change in the course of the battle. The signal from Assad today was "not yet."

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