Despite promising a national dialogue in the near future, Mr. Assad’s speech was surprisingly hard-line. The Syrian leader did little to inspire confidence by accusing the protesters of being part of foreign conspiracy and seeking to create sectarian division.
The president’s distinction in his televised speech at Damascus University between people with legitimate needs and “saboteurs” is unlikely to wash with his Western critics; it was quickly rejected by protesters who have shown remarkable resilience in the face of the brutality of his security forces.
Mr. Assad’s claim that his government has already started implementing reforms rings hollow amid the continued crackdown on the protesters. At least 1,300 civilians and 300 members of the security forces have been killed since the protests erupted three months ago. Thousands more have been arrested and at least 10,000 Syrians have fled to safety in neighboring Turkey.
Mr. Assad justified the Syrian military’s recent attack on the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour near the Turkish border by calling protesters “gunmen with sophisticated weapons and communications” who had carried out a “massacre” in the city.
Mr. Assad seemed equally callous in noting that many innocent people had fallen during the protests, but asserting that Syria’s only option is “to look at the future.”
In a clear indication that Mr. Assad had little to fear from a divided international community despite threats of relatively ineffective Western sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the Syrian opposition to commit to negotiations with Assad and avoid “provocations” that may destabilize the country. Mr. Lavrov did not have similar advice for Mr. Assad.
Mr. Assad’s speech is likely to push Western nations closer to calling for the Syrian president’s resignation. The United States and Europe have so far refrained from demanding Mr. Assad’s departure because they are uncertain who might succeed him and preferred to opt for the devil they know rather than the one they don’t.
However, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in an indication that Western patience was running thin, warned as he left for Luxemburg for a meeting of European foreign ministers slated to discuss additional sanctions on Syria, urged Mr. Assad to implement reforms or “step aside.”
Mr. Hague suggested that Europe was looking to Turkey to persuade Mr. Assad to call a halt to the bloodshed and start acting on reforms despite the fact that the Syrian leader has repeatedly rebuffed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to persuade him to do the right thing.
“I know that Turkey has many contacts, much influence in Syria, so I hope our Turkish colleagues will bring every possible pressure to bear on the Assad regime with a very clear message that they are losing legitimacy [and] that Assad should reform or step aside. I hope they will be very clear and very bold about that,” Mr. Hague said.
Initial response from Syrian opposition figures suggest that Mr. Assad has deepened the crisis and reinforced protesters’ resolve with his speech. Opposition figures said the speech contained nothing new, no remorse and no real inclination to embark on a road to reform.
While Mr. Assad’s speech seemed out of touch in terms of addressing protesters’ demands, it constituted a hardnosed assessment of the inability of the international community to cling to power no matter the price paid by demonstrators in blood.
Perhaps the only good news is that the speech makes it increasingly difficult for Western powers to straddle the fence by on the one hand imposing sanctions that so far have failed to persuade Mr. Assad to stop the crackdown while at the same time suggesting that they really want to do business with him if he would just change his ways.