Jewish World Review March 31, 2011 / 25 Adar II, 5771
Out loud, Syrian president blames conspiracies for unrest, remains vague on reforms
By Jeffrey Fleishman
What Assad believes and knows
AIRO (MCT) Invoking the steely determination of his brutal father, President Bashar Assad blamed foreign conspiracies for Syria's unrest in a highly awaited speech Wednesday that sought to brace his family's 40-year dynasty against a rebellion similar to those that have left governments reeling across the Middle East and Northern Africa.
It was to have been a defining moment for a president confronting a revolt in the provinces and power struggles within his inner circle. But Assad, who has cast himself as both a visionary and the tough son of his late father, Hafez, made no dramatic promises and refused to lift a long-standing emergency law limiting civil liberties as a concession to end nearly two weeks of bloodshed.
The speech instead alluded to well-worn charges of conspiracy theories, media distortion and the hidden hand of Israel for sparking uprisings that have resulted in security forces killing more than 60 protesters. Assad said the reforms demonstrators are demanding, including abolishing the emergency law and allowing wider political freedoms, were among existing proposals that may be passed later this year.
That vagueness epitomizes the strategy of leaders across the region who have struggled to hang on to power, some more successfully than others, against waves of protest. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sent out a flurry of hazy pledges for reform days before he was forced to resign. Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh is plying a similar approach as protests intensify for him to step down.
But perhaps more so than some of its neighbors, Syria suffuses intrigue into its politics. As he spoke, Assad sounded like a spymaster spinning scenarios of foreign interlopers, leveling suspicion and derision on Israel and the U.S. However, he did not identify any specific plots, except to say that conspirators were communicating through phone texting.
"Syria is a target of a big plot from the outside … its timing, its format has been speeded up," said Assad, as Syrians nationwide gathered around television sets at homes and in town squares. He said some protesters have been "duped" into the streets.
When he mentioned reforms, Assad, 45, said he has been pushing for them since he succeeded his father, who seized power in 1970 and led Syria until his death in 2000. Many Syrians, at that time, believed the British-educated eye doctor turned president would herald a freer, more politically open era. But Assad told the nation Wednesday that regional turmoil, including wars in Iraq and Lebanon, had slowed the pace of change.
"There are no hurdles to reforms, but there are delays," said Assad, who received a standing ovation when he entered Parliament. He acknowledged that the Syrian people do have legitimate "demands that have not been met. … Sometimes we failed in marketing our ideas."
Referring to revolutions this year in Egypt and Tunisia, he added: "If we stay without reform we are on the course of destruction."
But he offered no details and did not as many were anticipating repeal the emergency law that has kept his Baathist Party in power since a 1963 revolution. The president, who during the protests has shifted between crackdowns and appeasement, such as offers to raise salaries and investigate police brutality, said, "It is my responsibility to secure the stability of the nation."
The speech did not calm protests that have flared in the north and south but have yet to threaten the capital, Damascus. Media reports said police opened fire as hundreds of protesters marched in the northwestern city of Latakia. Another test for the regime is expected Friday when anti-government demonstrators have called for large rallies across the country. They are likely to be met by crowds of pro-Assad demonstrators whose recent appearances have looked carefully choreographed.
Assad's address came a day after the Cabinet was dissolved, an indication many Syrians hoped was a signal of bold measures to prevent a slide into chaos. But Assad appeared confident in his security forces and in his insistence that he is committed to reforms and would not be intimidated by protesters in the streets of Dara and Latakia.
"He clearly feels cocky and very much in control of the situation," said Andrew Tabler, a Syrian expert and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "U.S. officials who have been trying to engage Bashar are probably very disappointed. Everybody thought Bashar was ready to start a new movement … and clearly that didn't happen."
Assad believes the revolutionary fervor sweeping the region "doesn't need to be followed because Syria doesn't suffer from the same problems," said Ahmad Moussalli, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut. "He was rejecting the American domino theory, saying it doesn't work in the case of Syria."
Assad, however, faces tremendous internal pressures. Over the years, he has either won over or eliminated the old guard that served his father. He governs with a tight circle of family and clan members tied to military and security services, including his brother, Maher, head of the Presidential Guard.
The country faces dangers from high poverty, limited opportunities for the young, and a diverse sectarian mix. Assad's Alawite clan is a minority in a predominately Sunni Muslim country. He needs the support of Sunni businessmen and tribesmen. Those ties may be tested if the demonstrations, which began in the southern city Dara after youths were arrested for spraying anti-government graffiti, increase in intensity across the country.
His father put down a 1982 uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama by unleashing security forces that killed more than 10,000 people. Assad, so far, has attempted to contain protests with a blend of limited force and concessions.
"I'm afraid his speech means there may be a tightening up by the government and there may be more clashes and bloodshed," said Jordanian analyst Habib. "He has promised nothing to the protesters. He's provoking them."
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