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Syria's opposition and its supporters in the West dismissed President Bashar al-Assad's rare speech yesterday as nothing new, though analysts warn that it indicates that the Syrian strongman intends to hold his present, defiant course against the rebels and that no end to the nearly two-year-old conflict is in sight.
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which the US and Europe have recognized as the representative of the Syrian people, called the speech "a pre-emptive strike against both Arab and international diplomatic solutions" and proof of Mr. Assad's "incompetence as a head of state," reports Al Jazeera English.
[The speech] demonstrates that [Assad] is incapable of initiating a political solution that puts forward a resolution for the country’s struggle and an exit for his regime with minimum losses because he cannot see himself and his narrow based rule except as remaining in power despite being rejected by his people and his traditional allies.
Assad repeated the talk about a national unity government, a national dialogue, and a new constitution – which is an acknowledgement of the failure and illegitimacy of the constitution that was passed and prepared under the supervision of his regime- at the same time as his militias commit massacres against the residents across Syria.
Similarly, Syria's Local Coordination Committees said, through spokesman Omar Idlibi, that Assad's comments were "an attempt to legalize the liquidation of whoever opposes the regime, along with their popular civilian grassroots."
Assad's speech yesterday was his first in seven months, writes Agence France-Presse, but offered "little realistic prospect of ending what has become a civil war." Although Assad proffered what he said was a diplomatic solution to the conflict, including an end to the violence and dialogue with "loyal opposition," he dismissed most of those aligned against his government as "a gang of killers" of foreign nationality and backing.
“The one thing that is sure [is] that those who we face today are those who carry the Al Qaeda ideology,” he said.
The West widely dismissed his comments, Al Jazeera notes. The US State Department called his speech "detached from reality," and "another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people’s goal of a political transition."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted that it was "beyond hypocritical. Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one." And German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that the speech "contains no new insights."
What Assad's speech does indicate, writes the Monitor's Dan Murphy, is that there will be no negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war. "Assad laid out a series of demands for the rebellion today guaranteed to give them no other option but to fight on."
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 towards 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.
Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma, told The New York Times that Assad's stance “means we’re in for a long fight.... This is a dark, dark tunnel. There is no good ending to this. Assad believes he is winning."
And in a commentary for Al Arabiya, freelance journalist Nabila Ramdani called the speech "one of the most self-serving, cynical, and ultimately macabre speeches imaginable."
What Assad’s speech showed was that he has absolutely no intention whatsoever of compromising, and will continue to prosecute one of the most savage civil wars in Middle East history indefinitely. It did not go unnoticed that the district around the Damascus Opera House was ‘locked down’ by soldiers and police in the hours before Assad’s speech. The dictator’s affirmed enemies are no longer massing in ‘enemy’ cities like Aleppo, but flooding into the suburbs of Damascus itself.
Assad, of course, refuses to even discuss why millions of his own countrymen and women should have turned against him, and in many cases taken up arms against his rule. He will not acknowledge that the barbaric, repressive nature of his regime might be behind the desperate calls for democracy.
What the speech promised, Ms. Ramdani writes, "was a 2013 which is likely to be even more horrific for Syria than 2012."