Last updated: June 20, 2011 8:43 pm

Assad offers little hope to protesters

 
Syria's President, Bashar Assad delivers a speech, in Damascus
 Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, delivers a speech at Damascus University on the continuing unrest in the country.

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, gave his first public address in more than two months on Monday, promising reform but offering little hope for an end to a confrontation with anti-government protesters that has seen more than 1,300 people killed.

“We have to distinguish between [those who have legitimate demands] and saboteurs. The saboteurs are a small group who try to exploit the kind majority of the Syrian people to carry out their many schemes,” Mr Assad said in a speech at Damascus University.

Mr Assad’s show of defiance triggered a promise of tougher sanctions on his regime by the European Union. “The EU is actively preparing to expand its restrictive measures . . . with a view to achieving a fundamental change of policy by the Syrian leadership without delay,” EU foreign ministers said.

Mr Assad, whose absence from the public stage has led to speculation that he had been sidelined by hardliners in the regime’s inner circle, made conciliatory gestures such as acknowledging that some protesters had legitimate demands and promising reform.

But he failed to commit to any substantive new measures and repeated the line the government has used throughout the past three months of anti-government demonstrations, arguing that conspirators, adherents to “Takfiri (fundamentalist) extremist ideology” and criminals were manipulating the situation.

The White House called on Mr Assad to take “concrete action” to show he is serious about political reform and urged him to stop its violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

“I’m not saying the words are meaningless but he needs to act upon them,” Jay Carney, White House spokesman, said after the Syrian president’s speech.

“We’re just not buying it,” Victoria Nuland, US state department official, said of the allegations, calling for “actions not words” while the president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, said that Mr Assad’s speech was “not enough”.

William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said Mr Assad’s speech was “disappointing and unconvincing”. “If President Assad is to restore any credibility the Syrian people need to see concrete action, not vague promises,” he said.

The speech was greeted with derision by activists, who took to the streets in protest, and disappointment by some ordinary Syrians.

“There is nothing new. He’s losing it,” said one man in a suburb of Damascus. “He’s a good man but he’s totally out of touch with the people.”

Mr Assad’s lengthy televised address was the first time he had appeared in public since mid-April. Since then protests against corruption and the arbitrary behaviour of the security forces have spread across the country, while tanks have shelled and occupied cities.

Since a recent operation in the restive north-western province of Idlib drove more than 10,000 refugees across the Turkish border, Mr Assad has come under increasing pressure from his allies in Ankara. 

Some hoped that Monday’s speech would include promises to end the violence and significant concessions on reform.

Mr Assad mentioned a national dialogue commission and committees that would look into combating corruption, a reform of the constitution, and a change in party law. 

He also said he hoped a package of reforms would be ready by September, but failed to commit to any concrete steps or offer a timetable.

Moreover, he insisted that there would be “no political solution” to the problem of armed groups.

The speech offered so little that was new that some analysts questioned what its real purpose was. “I think his public appearance after weeks without showing up helps to halt the hearsay about being excluded from the political arena by his inner circle,” said one diplomat in Damascus.

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