Assad vows to continue fighting 'terrorists'
Bashar al-Assad has pledged to continue fighting “terrorist” violence and urged foreign countries to end support for his enemies while also offering a national dialogue and a constitutional referendum to end Syria’s bloody crisis.
The Syrian president used an hour-long speech in Damascus yesterday to propose what he called a comprehensive plan that included an “expanded government”. But there was no sign he was prepared to step down as the first stage of a political transition – a demand of all opposition groups. “I will go one day, but the country remains,” he said.
‘State of war’
The Syrian leader referred repeatedly to plots against his country and the role of al-Qaeda, long portrayed as the leading element in what began as a popular uprising in March 2011. Syria was not facing a revolution but a “gang of criminals”, he said.
“We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word,” the president told supporters. “This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation.”
It was hard to see how this latest speech offered even a glimmer of hope for a way out of the bloody impasse between the regime and rebels in a conflict which the UN said last week had claimed 60,000 lives over 21 months.
Waste of time
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said the closely watched address marked an end to the diplomatic effort being led by the UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi. “It was a waste of time. He said nothing constructive,” a spokesman, Louay Safi, told al-Jazeera TV. “It was empty rhetoric.”
Walid al-Bunni, a veteran activist, said: “The genuine opposition inside and outside Syria won’t accept the initiative.” Mr Assad’s speech was “beyond hypocritical”, Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, commented on Twitter.
“Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one.”
Mr Assad’s last public comments were in November, when he told Russian TV he would “live and die in Syria”. His last speech was in June 2012.
Yesterday’s speech from the stage of the Damascus opera house in the heart of the capital was punctuated by thunderous applause and loyalist chants from what was certainly a carefully selected audience. The city was described as being under a security lockdown before the event. Reconciliation could take place only with those “who have not betrayed Syria”, Mr Assad declared, repeating that there was no partner for peace.
There could not be simply a political solution, he insisted, but there had to be an end to violence and terror. There was loud cheering when he praised the bravery of the armed forces.
Mr Assad said a national dialogue would draw up a new charter. This would be put to a national referendum that would be followed in turn by parliamentary elections and a general amnesty.
Opposition comment on social media was predictably scathing. The speech prompted one anti-Assad figure to tweet: “There is a saying in Arabic that goes along the lines of: ‘He killed the man then walked in his funeral’.”
Mr Assad also thanked Russia, China and Iran for supporting Syria in the face of hostility from the US, Britain and France. – (Guardian service)