President Assad's defiant speech stuns Syrians who call for more protests

In a long-awaited speech to the nation following multiple deadly protests this past week, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad failed to announce concrete changes or meet any of the protesters' expectations.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addresses the parliament in Damascus on March 30. President Assad defied expectations on Wednesday that he would lift Syria's decades-old emergency law after nearly two weeks of protests that have presented the gravest challenge to his 11-year rule.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad struck a defiant stance Wednesday, blaming “conspiracies” for two weeks of unprecedented antiregime protests and stopping short of offering a widely anticipated reform package.

The content of Mr. Assad’s first address since the unrest began dismayed the opposition, which had hoped that the president would reveal details of how he plans to reform the tightly policed state. Despite the government earlier this week dismissing the ruling cabinet and hinting at lifting the emergency law, Assad failed to announce concrete changes or meet any of the protesters' expectations.

“We have returned to the point zero,” says Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer in Damascus.

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Protests that erupted two weeks ago in the southern city of Deraa have since spread to cities around the country, including in the capital, sparking clashes with police that have killed more than 60 people. Regional neighbors have watched with trepidation, as the unrest could have major strategic ramifications for allies Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

Looking relaxed and smiling and chuckling frequently, Assad delivered his hour-long address to the Syrian parliament in a customary conversational tone. His statements were interrupted every few minutes by parliamentarians standing up and offering individual messages of support and loyalty. He entered and exited to a standing ovation, and was frequently interrupted with coordinated applause.

“Only God, Syria, and Bashar!” chanted the parliamentarians.

Assad says not all protesters are 'conspirators'

“I am talking to you at an exceptional time. It is a test that happened to be repeated due to conspiracies against the country,” said Assad, who became president in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad. “God willing, we will overcome [this conspiracy].”

He acknowledged that reforms have been slow in coming, but he blamed the delay on traumatic distractions over the past decade, including the 2000-2005 Palestinian intifada, the September 2001 attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Hezbollah-Israel war of 2006.

“We know we haven’t addressed many of the people's aspirations,” he said, adding that not all those that have taken to the streets since March 15 were “conspirators.”

He said that Syria was heading toward “another phase” and admitted that proceeding without reforms “destroys the country.” He said that there would be new measures to combat corruption and “enhance national unity” and that the new government would announce them later. The previous government of Prime Minister Najib Ottari resigned Tuesday, and a new premier is yet to be named.

In keeping with past addresses at times of crisis, Assad gave away little in terms of what reforms the regime is considering to implement and when. “We want to speed [reforms] up, but not be [too] hasty,” he said.

Expectations dashed

Those words disappointed many. Protesters have been calling for the repeal of the emergency law that permits arrest without warrant and gives sweeping powers to the security apparatus, and also for the repeal of the political parties law that limits the formation of opposition groups.

“The emergency law and political parties law have been under study for a year,” Assad said today. “There are more, unannounced reforms… but giving a time frame is a matter of logistics.”

But even Syrian authorities and state-run media had indicated in recent days that Assad would use his address to announce a raft of reform proposals, including the repeal of the state of emergency law in place since 1963 and a loosening of media restrictions. The leaks of promised reforms ahead of the speech created a heightened sense of expectation that has been dashed by the vague content of the speech.

“It would have been better if he had said nothing than to raise everyone’s hopes beforehand only to crush them again,” says one Syrian activist who requested anonymity.

Protesters' repeat demands

Radwan Ziadeh, a Washington-based Syrian human rights activist, said that Syrian opposition figures were in agreement on several key demands:

  • a new democratic constitution
  • ending the state of emergency
  • release of all political prisoners
  • a new political parties law
  • reform of media laws
  • a new elections law
  • the formation of a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate past human rights abuses
  • granting full political rights to Syrian Kurds
  • restructuring the security and intelligence apparatus

Initial reactions carried by Twitter revealed considerable disappointment in Assad’s speech. “There’s nothing of substance here, nothing at all. Promising to do what he’s been saying he’ll do for 10 years already,” tweeted karimmb.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, tweeted “Short version Bashar speech: reforms maybe. Foreign conspiracies definitely. Satellite channels are bad.”

The Syria Revolution 2011 Facebook page called on protesters to take to the streets immediately following Assad’s speech. “Go down into the streets now and announce the uprising – control all the cities and declare civil disobedience from this moment onward,” it declared.

The question now is whether the opposition will redouble its efforts by escalating the unrest that has left dozens dead and shaken the country. A litmus test may occur in Friday, Islam’s holy day and usually a focal point for street demonstrations following noon prayers.

According to opposition activists, a new young leadership is beginning to emerge and coordinate after two weeks of demonstrations. If the uprising intensifies and spreads it will almost certainly lead to greater bloodshed.

Mr. Ziadeh says that the Syrian president “was very clear in saying that there is no neutrality – either you are with us or against the country.”

“We ask the international community to act now and not to wait for more victims from the Syrian side,” he adds.

(Editor's note: The original article has been updated with additional comment.)

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