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Al-Assad's speech: Reheated promises salted with threats

By Tim Lister
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Assad lays blame for chaos in Syria
  • Officials had said Bashar al-Assad's speech would be a blueprint for reform in Syria
  • Instead, it was a rehashing of old ambiguities and fresh threats, observers note
  • One opponent told CNN al-Assad's speech has given the uprising "another push"
  • Andrew Tabler: al-Assad's fixation on conspiracies indicates he's missed the point

(CNN) -- Syrian officials had dubbed it as a landmark speech -- one that would be the blueprint for reform and begin a national dialogue.

As it turned out, President Bashar al-Assad's hourlong address at Damascus University Monday seemed more a reworking of previous promises to create committees that would study changes to the constitution, with vague hints that opposition parties would be tolerated. And rather than placating the growing opposition to the regime, it appears to have emboldened it.

One popular tweet in the immediate aftermath read: "Assad speech arithmetic. Number of times each word used: Freedom: 1; Conspiracy: 8; & Vandals: 18." Another scorned the Syrian leader: "Only #Assad can turn a Monday into a Friday. Protests reported everywhere in #Syria."

Ausama Monajed, an activist in the U.K., told CNN: "People are very disappointed, yet happy that Assad gave another push to the uprising by saying the wrong things!" And the Local Coordination Committees, which organize protests in Syria, said in a statement: "We have announced previously, we rejected any dialogue in the light of the continued killings and intimidation and the siege of cities and arbitrary arrests. As we believe that there will be no benefit of any dialogue if it is not intended to turn the current page of the regime, peacefully ... towards a new, democratic and free Syria."

"Assad hung his problems on foreign conspiracy theories and he accused the Syrian people of being vandalizers, armed gangs, and lawless criminals rather than respond to their legitimate demands," said Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.

He called the speech "an invitation for those sitting at home to go out and join the demonstrations, because after three months of protests Assad has not said anything new."

Arabist blogger Issandr El-Amrani said al-Assad sounded weak.

"The previous speeches were cocky and confident, arrogant even. In this one he seemed uncomfortable and nervous, gone was the joking and swagger of a month ago," he wrote. "Assad offered a bunch of technocratic reforms... and he appeared rambling and perhaps even weak. Its contents were vague, and simply did not address the very serious crisis between the Syrian people and their state," El-Amrani said.

Al-Assad's speech was peppered with possibilities: "We are considering more options to include more people in the general amnesty" and "there is a possibility to amend constitutional articles." He spoke of the need for a "deep transformation."

But the speech was also laced with threats. "There are those who are killing in the name of the religion and want to spread chaos under the pretext of religion," al-Assad said. "Those who terrorize and murder, we cannot afford them clemency."

Andrew Tabler, author of the forthcoming book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria," said the fact that al-Assad had spoken of conspirators and outlaws so prominently suggested he had simply missed the point and had failed to recognize the nature of the problem.

There was more than a hint of Apres moi, la deluge, with such lines as: "I want to ask, did this chaos create job opportunities and did it provide the peace and security that we had?"

And there was also an element of paternalism: that it was up to the state to decide what was best. "The state is like a mother or father ...When a state affords clemency to those who erred it means it acts in a very responsible way," he said.

Again, al-Assad tried to appeal to the middle ground -- the silent majority of Syrians who have not yet taken to the streets. "The majority who have legitimate demands didn't go into these demonstrations and I met a lot of them," he said.

Analysts say this urban population, especially in the capital and other major cities, may hold the key to the balance of power. Much of the opposition so far has come from provincial towns in the north and south, places where the regime has invariably been unpopular. In some, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been strong; others include the marginalized Kurdish community. There have been protests in some of the larger cities: Homs and Latakia among them. But the opposition knows it must win over more of the urban middle class if it is to tilt the balance against a well-entrenched regime.

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Syria-watchers say that may be more likely if the economy goes into a tailspin. Al-Assad acknowledged that the Syrian economy is feeling the impact of three months of unrest.

"The most dangerous thing we face in the next stage is the weakness or collapse of the Syrian economy," he said -- but again he appeared to blame the protestors for this. Even so, to several analysts it was a startling admission. And, they say, it may have the unintended consequence of convincing more people that it may be worth supporting an alternative to the current regime.

The trouble with al-Assad's speeches, according to both Syria analysts and opposition activists, is that they are not followed by action. As Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington puts it: "In June of 2005 at the end of the Ba'ath Party conference, [Presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban] made virtually the same promises that she made in the days leading up to Bashar al-Assad's March 30 speech, concerning a reconsideration of the emergency law, considering [the] political parties law, and a whole host of other reforms."

"It was the traditional Assad style," Tabler said, "many promises but nothing concrete. He rules through ambiguity but after eleven years I don't think anyone's buying it."

Analysts agree that the regime is not in imminent danger of falling. It retains the loyalty of the security forces, some of whose commanders are directly tied by personal relationships to al-Assad. There is very real apprehension -- inside and outside the country -- about what might follow should he fall. And there is no identifiable opposition leadership.

But equally, there is no sign of the protests withering. The refrain of opposition figures is that the deaths of hundreds of protesters so far must be made to count for something.

"The problem is governance," says Tabler. "It's a corrupt, minority-led system and for well over a decade it hasn't been able to reform."