Syria’s Assad Offers Reforms as Government Fights ‘Terrorists’Dana El Baltaji and Mark Drajem
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed his nation for the first time since June, offering a plan to end fighting there that was quickly rejected by opposition groups and Western governments.
In a televised address from the Opera House in Damascus, Assad criticized rebels fighting his reign as “terrorists,” and said Islamists were trying to take control of the country at the behest of foreign powers.
“We face foreign aggression in a new kind of way, and this kind of war is more serious and destructive than conventional wars,” he said yesterday. “This war uses Syrians to attack Syrians and to destroy Syria. Are we to negotiate with puppets of the West?”
Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy, and Egypt, its most populous, this month called for a “peaceful handover” of power in Syria, their first joint call for Assad to step down. The U.S. and European Union have also called for him to leave.
While Assad said he would accept a conditional cease-fire, a new constitution and expanded government, the aim of the address was to demonstrate to the country that he is still in control and bolster his supporters, said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London.
“For the past few months we’ve been hearing that the regime is about to collapse,” Kamel said in an interview. “But by coming out in this manner, he is saying that he is in control. It’s a show of power for his base.”
At least 60,000 people have been killed in the fighting, the United Nations said last week in its first detailed analysis of deaths in the conflict.
Both the U.S. and U.K. governments, who have pressed Assad to leave, denounced his speech. The speech is “beyond hypocritical,” William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, said in a message on Twitter. “Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making,”
It “is yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people’s goal of a political transition,” Victoria Nuland, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. His plan “would only allow the regime to further perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people.”
Nuland said that Assad was undercutting the efforts of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Assad met with Brahimi last month to discuss the fighting there, which has intensified after nearly two years of clashes.
George Sabra, vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, a group of opposition entities, told Reuters the peace plan Assad put forth did “not even deserve to be called an initiative.”
“We should see it rather as a declaration that he will continue his war against the Syrian people,” he said.
The speech showed “a lot of desperation to rectify the situation on the ground,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. “You have sides that won’t put their weapons down until they achieve what they want,” he said.
Israel is planning to build a new fence along the Golan Heights because the Syrian army has moved back and made way for so-called global Jihad forces, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The Syrian regime is very unstable,” Netanyahu said yesterday. Chemical weapons are a concern to Israel, which is coordinating intelligence and readiness with the U.S. and others, he said.
The Syrian president inherited power in 2000 from his father, Hafez al-Assad, a Soviet ally who ruled for three decades and received weapons and financial support for the Arab standoff against Israel.