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.

By , Staff writer

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    A Syrian refugee watches a television broadcast of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaking in Damascus, in his container at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, Jan. 6. Mr. Assad made his first public appearance in months on Sunday, calling for a "full national mobilization" to fight against rebels he described as Al Qaeda terrorists.
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Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, surely listened to President Bashar al-Assad's speech to the Syrian people today with a growing feeling of dread.

At the end of last year Mr. Brahimi said he only saw two choices for Syria: "Either there will be a political solution that will meet the ambitions and legitimate rights of the Syrian people, or Syria will turn into hell." In essence, Mr. Assad responded to Brahimi's warning today by saying: "Then let it be hell."

Already, the UN estimates at least 60,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad's Baathist regime began in March 2011. The chances were already slim that the opposition – a disparate group of exiled dissidents, local militias, and foreign jihadis – would agree to peace talks on terms acceptable to Assad and his loyalists. Assad laid out a series of demands for the rebellion today guaranteed to give them no other option but to fight on.

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The Syrian strongman spoke today, amid rapturous chanting from loyalists that they are with him with "all their blood and soul," of a reconciliation conference followed by a new constitution to be voted on by the nation. But only after a series of impossible-to-meet conditions are met: when fighting against his government stops and when his army regains full control of the country's territory and borders. In other words, after the complete defeat of the uprising, which he deemed "terrorism" and insisted is entirely the work of foreigners – the United States and the Sunni Arab monarchies of the Gulf.

It was a defiant speech reminiscent of his earlier ones, those of his father, former President Hafez al-Assad – and of Muammar Qaddafi in the waning months of his failed effort to survive his own uprising in 2011. He ruled out talks with "extremists" who know "nothing but the language of blood." Since he has defined all of those taking up arms against his government as "extremists" and terrorists, that would seem to rule out negotiations with anyone that matters on the other side of Syria's civil war. In his words, the rebels are "killers and criminals."

To be sure, anyone going into a negotiation would want to do so from a position of strength. It's possible that Assad is striking a maximalist, defiant tone in public while entertaining compromises behind the scenes. But there were no indications of even a moderation of tone toward his opponents, routinely described as "terrorists" or agents of foreign powers, which would usually be taken as a signal that some sort of overture was being made.

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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