Making a rare public appearance on Sunday, January 6th, embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad stood at a lectern on a stage at the Damascus Opera House, on Umayyad Square in the center of the capital and delivered a defiant speech in a desperate attempt to retain power. Marking his first public address in six months, Assad displayed a blatant disregard for international demands to seek a peaceful resolution of the internecine warfare that has plagued Syria for the last 21 months. Assad’s last public comments came in an interview in November to Russian TV in which he vowed to “live and die” in Syria.
The United Nations recently reported that over 60,000 Syrians have been killed in the brutal civil war which began as a peaceful protest movement and turned into an armed struggle after security forces fired on demonstrators. Since that time, forces of the Assad regime have battled a variety of rebel organizations seeking to oust the Syrian strongman.
Assad called on Syrians to persist in their fight against the burgeoning insurrection against him and proposed terms for a peace plan that would allow for him to stay in power. He pledged to continue the protracted battle “as long as there is one terrorist left” in Syria.
“They killed the intellectuals in order to inflict ignorance on us,” Assad said of his opponents. “They deprived children from school in order to bring the country backward.” Some armed rebel groups have used techniques that randomly target civilians, such as car bombs, and there are foreign fighters among the rebels. The vast majority of the armed movement, however, is comprised of Syrians who took up arms during the uprising or defected from the armed forces.
Even as the violent civil war rages on and threatens to close in on his seat of power in Syria’s capital, Assad’s message was that he will not hide or compromise on his positions. “What we started will not stop,” he declared in an overtly arrogant demeanor.
As reported in the New York Times, Assad proffered overtures for what he termed a “peace plan” that included installing a new cabinet, calling for a national reconciliation conference and establishing a new constitution to replace the one adopted just last year. His proposals, however, were replications of previously offered symbolic changes and concessions that were made at the outset of the March 2011 uprising and were summarily rejected at that juncture as not sufficient in terms of a long-standing peace. He ruled out any negotiations with the armed Syrian opposition, and demanded that regional and Western countries desist in their funding and arming of the rebels trying to overthrow him. He pointedly jettisoned the rebels demands that he step down, making his agenda a nonstarter for most of his opponents.
Last year, the government in Syria adopted a constitution that allows political parties, in theory, to compete with Assad’s ruling Baath Party. It carried out parliamentary elections that were boycotted by his opponents
Assad queried, “We never rejected a political solution … but with whom should we talk? With those who have an extremist ideology, who only understand the language of terrorism? “Or should we with negotiate puppets whom the West brought?” He answered by stating, “We negotiate with the master, not with the slave.”
Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years, made references during his speech on Sunday to which opposition groups were worthy, while categorizing the remainder as terrorists and traitors. He said that he was open to dialogue with “those who have not sold Syria to foreigners,” most likely a reference to tolerated opposition groups that reject armed revolution, such the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change. But his speech appeared unlikely to satisfy even those opponents, since it made no apology for the arrests of peaceful activists or for airstrikes that have destroyed neighborhoods. Nor did he acknowledge that his opponents sought anything but ruin for Syria.
He allowed for no acknowledgment that the rebels have taken control of substantial parts of the north and east of the country, nor did her give voice to the fact that many ordinary Syrians continue to demand change in the face of a crackdown that has laid waste to neighborhoods and killed tens of thousands. He also omitted the fact that even longtime allies like Russia have signaled that Assad may be unable to defeat the insurgency.
Speaking in front of a collage of photos of what ostensibly appeared to be Syrians killed in the fighting, Assad addressed the sober realism of the escalating violence but said, “Everyone who comes to Syria knows that Syria accepts advice but not orders” — a reference to outside powers calling on him to relinquish power.
Ahead of Assad’s speech, it was reported that security forces were heavily deployed and that the Internet was suspended in many parts of Damascus, apparently for security reasons, and some streets were closed. As Assad was departing the hall after the speech, supporters pushed forward and swarmed around him to try to talk to him. Nervous security guards tried to push them away.
Coming after days of speculation that Assad might be prepared to negotiate, his arrogant tone on Sunday was interpreted as a portent of further trouble for both his allies and his adversaries. Russia may now find it harder to stave off international action against Syria, which it has done so far using its veto at the United Nations Security Council, as the chances for a political solution seem to fade into oblivion.
The opposition swiftly rejected Assad’s proposals. Those fighting to topple the regime have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than his departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture. “It is an excellent initiative that is only missing one crucial thing: His resignation,” said Kamal Labwani, a veteran dissident and member of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition umbrella group.
“All what he is proposing will happen automatically, but only after he steps down,” Labwani told The Associated Press by telephone from Sweden. Haitham Maleh, an opposition figure in Turkey, said Assad was offering the initiative because he feels increasingly besieged by advancing rebels. “How could he expect us to converse with a criminal, a killer, a man who does not abide by the law?” he asked.
The main opposition body, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, issued a statement calling the speech “a pre-emptive strike against both Arab and international diplomatic solutions.”
Drawing a sharp rebuke from the US State Department, spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a statement that Assad’s speech is “another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people’s goal of a political transition His initiative is detached from reality, undermines the efforts of Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, and would only allow the regime to further perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people.”
Brahimi, a United Nations-Arab League envoy and a senior Algerian diplomat, had attempted to engage in mediation efforts during his visit to Damascus on December 24, when he warned of national disintegration if the two sides did not negotiate a solution towards reconciliation. During the meeting with Assad, Brahimi pushed for a peace plan for Syria based on a plan first presented in June at an international conference in Geneva. The proposal calls for an open-ended cease-fire and the formation of a transitional government until new elections can be held and a new constitution drafted.
In his previous speeches and interviews, Assad has tenaciously insisted that the crisis that faces his country was predicated on a foreign-backed scheme and was not a popular uprising against him and his family’s decades-long rule.
Assad seemed overtly confident in the ability of his troops to crush the rebellion despite the recent fighting in Damascus. “He did not come across as a leader under siege, nor as a leader whose regime is on the verge of collapse,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, head of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “He seemed determined that any political settlement must come on his terms, linking those terms with the Syrian national interest as if they are inseparable,” he said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called Assad’s speech “beyond hypocritical.” In a message posted on his official Twitter feed, Hague said “empty promises of reform fool no one.” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s office said in a statement that the bloc will “look carefully if there is anything new in the speech, but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition.”
“He doesn’t seem to have moved an inch since summer 2011,” said Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, noting that Assad gave “barely the slightest nod” to Brahimi’s proposals.
It has been noted that Assad’s defiance may prompt Brahimi to abrogate his mission which would place the “Friends of Syria,” the group of nations supporting the opposition — the United States and its Western allies, Turkey and some Arab countries — with proscribed options. They will have to decide whether to intervene more aggressively or risk allowing the conflict to drag on indefinitely.
“Assad is not letting the Friends of Syria off the hook by making it easy for them to declare victory and close the Syria file,” Mr. Sayigh said. “Now what will they do?”
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey said the speech was filled with “empty promises” and repetitive pledges of reform by a leader out of touch with the Syrian people.”It seems Assad has shut himself in his room, and for months has read intelligence reports that are presented to him by those trying to win his favor,” Davutoglu told reporters in the Aegean port city of Izmir on Sunday.
Turkey is a former ally of Damascus, and while Ankara first backed Assad after the uprising erupted, it turned against the regime after its violent crackdown on dissent.
Observers said the speech signaled the violence would continue indefinitely as long as both sides lacked the ability to score a victory on the battlefield. Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, said Assad’s speech made it clear he has no intention of making way for a political transition. “He sees himself rather as an orchestrator and arbiter of a process to be organized under his control,” she said.
Joshua Landis, a scholar on Syria and Assad’s minority sect, the Alawites, at the University of Oklahoma said that Assad’s defiance “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.”