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Syria Faces More International Pressure After Assad Speaks

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

International pressure on Syria increased after President Bashar al-Assad called for a national dialogue on political change while blaming anti-government protests on a foreign conspiracy.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “underlined the necessity to speed up the reform process in Syria in order to meet the demands of the Syrian people,” according to a statement on the website of Erdogan’s office today after the leaders spoke by telephone.

There is “complete and absolute conviction in the process of reform because it represents the interest of the homeland,” Assad said yesterday in a speech carried live on state television from Damascus, the capital. “The problem is which reform we want and what are the details.” He said the unrest is a “conspiracy” hatched abroad.

Protests against Assad’s 11-year rule began in mid-March as part of a wave of demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa this year that has unseated the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. At least seven people were killed by security forces during demonstrations today, according to Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights.

Proposal for Parties

The government posted a proposed law on the creation of political parties on its website, said state television, which showed thousands of Assad supporters rallying today in several cities. Currently only Assad’s Baath party has been allowed to lead the country.

“God hail the army,” the president’s backers, clad in T-shirts with his picture and holding flags, chanted in Umayyad Square in central Damascus. “We come to hail you, Bashar.”

The president issued an amnesty for people who committed crimes before June 20, state-run news agencies said today.

Assad said yesterday that the demands of Syrians he has met with “are with merit,” citing examples of calls for justice, jobs, security and greater democracy. “We have started to resolve these issues,” he said.

Syrians need to decide “first if we want to amend some articles in the constitution or to change the constitution,” Assad said. He also said a national dialogue may delay elections scheduled for August.

‘Stop the Violence’

“President Assad needs to either lead that transition or get out of the way,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters yesterday. “He needs to actually do something to fulfill the sentiment expressed in the desire for dialogue because that needs to happen. But first he needs to stop the violence.”

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Syrians “are asking for real change now -- not vague promises to be fulfilled perhaps at some undefined later date,” according to a statement on his ministry’s website.

A total of 1,420 civilians have been killed since the regime began cracking down on dissent, Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights, said by phone from Cairo today. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the civilian death toll at 1,310 and said 341 members of the security forces had died.

Syrians have been crossing into Turkey since June 8 to escape the violence. The number of Syrians fleeing the unrest increased to 10,639, Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency reported yesterday. The refugees should return home, Assad said.

Northern Deployment

Syrian forces were deployed in the north around Ma’arrat an Nu’man June 17 after the army swept through the town of Jisr al-Shughour earlier this month. The government said the operation was “to prevent terrorists” from cutting the highway between Damascus and the second-largest city, Aleppo.

“Villages were increasingly empty from around 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from Jisr al-Shughour,” the United Nations Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, said today in an e-mailed statement. “There was no evidence of people working in the fields.”

The family members of many Syrian refugees in Turkey have been killed, are missing or have gone into hiding, UNHCR said, adding that it has heard accounts of murders, targeted assassinations, assault, civilians getting killed in crossfire, and torture and humiliation by the military.

Demonstrations erupted across Syria yesterday as protesters expressed disappointment with Assad’s address, saying it didn’t meet their demands for political change, Al Jazeera television said. Rallies were held in the suburbs of Damascus and in the cities of Homs, Hama, Latakia, Albu Kamal and Daraa, as well as in towns near Daraa, where the protests began, the network said.

‘Brutal Force’

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Associated Press yesterday that Assad may be forced out within six months, saying, he “ended up using too much brutal force, too many graves have been dug and he lost practically his legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people.”

Assad’s speech was his third since the Syrian unrest started. In April, he said the lack of a connection between the government and its people had created popular anger. A month earlier, he said there will be a new parliament and local administrations after elections scheduled for August.

The protests are the biggest challenge to the Assad family since 1982. That year, Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, used the army to crush an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood movement and focused on the city of Hama. Thousands of people were killed. The Assads are from the Alawite minority in the Sunni Muslim-majority country of more than 21 million people.

Assad created a committee that is to prepare the ground for the national dialogue, state-run television said June 1. He also issued a decree in April approving a new government, led by former Agriculture Minister Adel Safar.

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