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In a rare speech today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blamed 10 months of unrest on foreign conspirators and vowed to come down on "terrorists" with an "iron fist." Notably absent from the speech, with went on for more than an hour and a half, were any concessions.
The speech "gave no hint of any flexibility that could break the deadlock between his regime and the opposition," but instead suggested the regime believes its brutal crackdown is close to breaking the opposition, reports the Guardian newspaper. "We are nearing the end of the crisis," Mr. Assad said. "We should stand united.… Victory is near because we can be steadfast. We know our enemies."
The speech – only his fourth public address since the uprising began in March – "differed little" from previous speeches in which he made vague promises of reform, blamed the violence on terrorists and foreigners, and remained generally defiant of internal and international criticism, according to the Associated Press. This time, however, there are Arab League observers in the country to evaluate his claims of foreign saboteurs and media lies.
"Bashar is completely removed from reality, as if he is talking about a country other than Syria," said a Syria-based activist who identified himself by his nickname, Abu Hamza, because of fear of reprisals. "After 10 months of bloodshed, he comes out and talks of a foreign conspiracy."
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The United Nations said last month that more than 5,000 people, including soldiers who have defected or refused to shoot on civilians, have been killed since protests began. The Syrian government dismissed that report, which did not account for any serving members of the military killed by opponents, as "incredible" and countered that 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed, according to BBC.
Previous speeches often included promises of reform, and in today's speech, Assad said a referendum on the Constitution and elections could be held this year. However, he also said any reforms made should not be in response to the uprising. "We should link what happened before the crisis and post-crisis and then embark on reform.... We shouldn't build our reforms on this crisis," he said, according to BBC.
Most promises of reform have not yet been fulfilled.
Assad also slammed the Arab League, accusing it of hypocrisy for lecturing Damascus on reforms and of abandoning its Arab identity by suspending Syria's membership in November. "The Arab League is no longer Arab; we should call it the 'Foreign League,' " he said, according to the Guardian's liveblog of the speech.
Damascus has only partially implemented the pledges it made to the League in December – mainly to withdraw the Army from city streets and to release political prisoners detained during the uprising – but the Arab League has opted to keep the observer mission going. The number of monitors in the country will be boosted again this week, from 165 to 200, Reuters reports. The Associated Press reports that a group of observers from Kuwait was attacked by "unknown protesters" in northern Syria today and two were wounded.
The observer mission will present the Arab League with a report by Jan. 19, Bloomberg notes.
The mission has been heavily criticized by the opposition for the poor human rights record of its chief, for its inability to move about freely, and for its reluctance to enter the most contested areas of the country. Its presence has nevertheless made a difference, argues an editorial in Lebanon's Daily Star.
But the observers have had an impact; they have recorded the violations to Syria’s commitments to the Arab League, and masses of people have taken to the street to express their opposition to the government of President Bashar Assad, in part encouraged by the presence of the monitors.
While it is too soon to condemn the mission as a failure, the clock is now ticking on the second half of this contest. The remaining 10 days of the monitors’ mission represent the final opportunity for Syrian officials to honor their country’s signature on the agreement with the Arab League.