Earlier today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave his first speech in two months. Since the uprising against his regime began in March in the southern city of Daraa, this was only the third time Assad has publicly addressed the nation. He spoke of the need for a “national dialogue” about political and economic issues including a reform of the constitution; urged the thousands who have fled to Turkey to return to their villages, saying they would be safe; said there was a need to distinguish between those making legitimate demands and “terrorists, wanted criminals, Muslim extremists and foreign conspirators; and dismissed the protests as “a conspiracy designed abroad and perpetrated in our country.”
Addressing an audience of supporters at Damascus University, Assad also compared the “conspiracy” to a “germ” that is “reproducing everywhere, in every moment.” Assad’s family has been in power for 40 years; he became president in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad.
While the New York Times says that, in the speech, Assad seemed to be acknowledging “the depth of what stands as the gravest challenge to his 11 years in power,” the Guardian’s MidEast commentator Ian Black notes that the speech was far from any sort of “defining moment” and was “replete with a drearily familiar litany of blame – foreign conspiracies, germs, fomentors of chaos, Muslim extremism – for the ills that have befallen his country.” The opposition saw the speech as falling short of its demands. Protesters have taken to the streets in Homs, Latakia, Idlib and in the suburbs of Damascus, says the Guardian.
As the New York Times points out, some of the reforms Assad spoke of have been “on the table since 2005 — including a new law that would make possible parties other than the Baath Party, the instrument of Mr. Assad’s power whose pre-eminence is enshrined in the constitution.”
Assad did not, though, make any mention about amnesty for those who fled from towns including Jisr al-Shughour in fear of violence from security forces. Indeed, the speech seemed yet another instance of Assad proposing too few reforms that are far too late. As a member of the Syrian Local Co-ordination Committee said to Haroon Siddique on the Guardian’s live MidEast blog,
I think Bashar al-Assad till now he’s still living in denial of what’s happening in Syria. We already have around eight protests in Homes and we expect that more cities and towns will join the protests today. We think it’s going to be the biggest night protests yet because everyone felt upset. Bashar Assad, he doesn’t recognise…that he’s facing an uprising in the country, he’s still referring to protesters as terrorists and criminals working for foreign forces.
What’s really funny about it …he’s talking about the price of diesel …did we lose 1,300 martyrs for the price of diesel.
Another commenter on AngloSyria noted how out of touch Assad seems to be the reality in his own country:
I don’t think the use of the word ‘germs’ is going to go down well, particularly since the demonstrators have been called ‘cockroaches’ ‘insects’ amongst other names quite openly on both Syrian TV and FB/Twitter. Although he recognised the loss of innocent lives, no mention of any reconciliation or fact-finding missions.
Dismissing social media clips outright as a bunch of fabrications is blatantly going to backfire on him.
Forming committees to form other committees to study how they can change or replace the constitution makes you wonder what they’ve been doing for the past 3 months. Why do they need another 3 months? …
One crowning example of the extent to which Assad is out of touch with his country is a flattering — may I saw fawning — piece about his London-born wife, Asma Assad, “A Rose in the Desert,” that appeared in Vogue magazine just before the protests began in March. While Vogue has taken the piece down, you can still see some of its contents on this website. The piece includes a photo of Assad in jeans playing with his children, an image that calls to mind that of another ruler tragically distanced from the reality of his people, the Roman emperor Nero fiddling as his city burned.
Following Assad’s speech, Malath Aumran said on Twitter
This is reform? More than 50 students just now arrested from Aleppo University.
Below is a video some 300 strong that occurred in the Damascus suburb of Irbin; the protesters are chanting “No to dialogue with murderers.”
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Photo by Ricardo Stuckert/ABr (Agência Brasil ) [CC-BY-2.5-br (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/br/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons