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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.

By Staff writer / January 6, 2013

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.

Majed Jaber/Reuters

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Cairo

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.

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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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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's speech on Sunday seemed unlikely to end the civil war.

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.

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.

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