It was a fiercely combative and confident Syrian President Bashar Assad who took to the podium of Damascus University on Tuesday, Jan. 10, to deliver his fourth speech since unrest erupted in his troubled land last March. His manner and his words made one thing clear: he's not going anywhere.
In many ways, he has reason to exude confidence. The rickety Arab League monitoring mission, now in its third week of a monthlong mission, has been widely criticized for perceived ineptitude and for providing the regime with a veneer of cooperation while Damascus continues to kill its way out of a crisis that has already claimed well over 5,000 lives. The Syrian opposition remains bitterly divided and has struggled to present itself as a viable alternative to the current regime. Assad's formidable military and security apparatus remains largely intact, despite low-level defections. Internationally, Russia and China continue to shield the regime from meaningful international censure.
The truth is, Assad's almost two-hour-long speech full of conspiratorial claims of foreign intervention, a vast media plot against the country, a useless Arab League implementing a Western-Zionist agenda and destruction caused by terrorists who want to unravel the country's ethnic-religious harmony will resonate with a significant portion of frightened, concerned Syrians.
The Syrian opposition, in all its varied forms, has yet to win over those people and they were the primary target of Assad's speech. The region is rife with examples of what may await Syria if Assad should fall: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, newly freed of their own dictators, have demonstrated an ascendant Islamism (although it varies in intensity from country to country) that has worried minorities, particularly Christians. Syria has a sizable Christian minority, as Iraq once did. More than a million Iraqi refugees of various religious backgrounds fled to Syria in the years following Saddam Hussein's ouster. The sectarian wars in Iraq and Lebanon are a recent memory to Syrians who remember the floods of refugees and the instability lapping at their borders. Assad appealed not only to Syrians who fear the sectarian pandemonium some of their neighbors (Iraq, Lebanon) have recently experienced and the Islamist tilt shifting political orientations throughout the region but also to those who want a strong leader, whatever his faults, rather than a political vacuum and an untested opposition. "Who is the opposition?" Assad said at one point in his speech. "Anyone now can call themselves opposition. When I meet them, I ask, Who do you represent?" It's a question Assad knows many Syrians are asking and they are the constituency he wants to keep on his side.
Dressed in a dark suit and crisp white shirt and flanked by Syrian flags on either end of the university podium, Assad looked the statesman, but his opening salvo belied his appearance. He trotted out well-worn claims about foreign conspiracies ("What was being planned behind closed doors has become clear now") and spent a considerable amount of time explaining a vast media conspiracy hatched by "more than 60" international media organizations and "tens of websites" designed to harm Syria's image.
He referred to the now infamous early-December Barbara Walters interview without naming the American anchor, saying it had been edited to make him look like a leader who evades responsibilities. In the interview, he distanced himself from his security forces, claiming he didn't "own them" and that they were "not my forces."
On Tuesday, he obliquely addressed the controversy. "I have never watched myself on television since becoming President, but I watched this interview," Assad said. "If we didn't have the original [footage], it would be difficult to believe that I didn't mean what I said. The aim is to say that this person lives in a cocoon. If the head of the pyramid is trying to evade responsibility, what about everyone else?" he said.
He also lambasted the Arab League, which has about 165 observers on the ground in Syria to ascertain if the regime is complying with an agreement to withdraw its tanks and military equipment from the cities, cease violence, open a real dialogue with the opposition and free political detainees. Assad said it was his idea to invite the monitors, ignoring the fact that his government danced around the Arab League's request, and only agreed weeks after the pan-Arab body suspended Syria's membership and only after it threatened to take the issue to the United Nations Security Council.
"This foreign intervention is Western but also unfortunately Arab, which at times is more vicious," Assad said. In a clear jab at Qatar, the current chair of the Arab League, and other Gulf states, he ridiculed the notion of taking advice on or lessons in democracy from other autocratic regimes, likening it to a doctor advising a patient to stop smoking while having a cigarette in his own mouth. "Our first parliament was in 1919," he said. "Imagine, that these countries want to advise us about democracy. Where were they?"
It's a line that will play well in many quarters not only in Syria but in the Levant in general, with its rich, millennia-old history and a traditionally arrogant view of Gulf Arabs as little more than nouveau riche with little history or culture. Assad hammered the point. "The Arab League without Syria's membership suspends the 'Arabism' of the league," he said in a capital that has long prided itself as the heart of pan-Arab nationalism. "What is a body without its heart? ... If they think that with money they can buy history, we tell them that money does not invent civilizations."
He also addressed the Arab League's long history of ineffectualness, contrasting it with what he said was Damascus' demonstrated pan-Arab policies. "We should not be surprised by the Arab League's position," he said. "Has it replanted one olive tree uprooted by Israel or rebuilt one house demolished by Israel? ... We have tried for years to have an Israel-boycott office, but within weeks they wanted to boycott Syria." Still, the Syrian President pledged that he would not close the door to any Arab initiative as long as it respected the country's sovereignty.
It wasn't until 40 minutes into his speech that Assad directly addressed the internal crisis, casting some pro-democracy protesters as "terrorists" while acknowledging that others wanted reforms. He cited the unstable security situation as the reason many of his promised changes were not yet tangible, including the lifting of the draconian, decades-old emergency law; he also said other items, including a multiparty law that would transform the country from one-party Baathist rule, a new media law and anticorruption legislation, were being drafted or signed into law. A new constitution was also in the cards, to be followed by parliamentary elections within months of its adoption. In perhaps his only tangible concession, Assad promised a constitutional referendum in the next few months.
The country's problems, according to the President, are two-pronged: "implementing political reform and combating terrorism." It was a convenient, simplistic us-and-them formula wrapped in a foreign conspiracy. "If we implement reforms now, will the foreign plot end?" he asked. "If we undertake reform, will the terrorism stop? Does the terrorist want multiparty law? No, a terrorist is a terrorist. The majority of Syrians want reform. They have not destroyed things."
Assad was relaxed as he addressed a stiff, restrained audience. (His p.r. team must have learned a thing or two since the President's first speech to his pliant parliament, which was frequently interrupted by seemingly choreographed sycophantic pledges of loyalty from MPs.) "When I drank water in my last speech, they accused me of being nervous," he quipped, to laughs. He stood behind a wall that listed the names of Syrian cities, including Homs, Hama and Dara'a, all hotbeds of resistance to his rule.
But although he was relaxed, he had little new to offer. He once again denied ordering security forces to shoot civilians "except in self-defense" and vowed "forgiveness" to those who were "misled" into protesting. Still, lest anyone think the autocrat had softened, he pledged to hit "terrorists with an iron fist." It was an hour and a half before Assad turned to what may be his regime's Achilles' heel the economy. But there, again, he had nothing new to suggest besides pledging to support small- and medium-size industry and repeating that the West was "not oxygen needed to breathe" and that Syria would look for Eastern trading partners.
The United Nations is due to address the Syrian issue for the first time this year later Tuesday. The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) was uncharacteristically quick to respond to Assad on Tuesday. Its leader, Burhan Ghalioun (whose three-month tenure was renewed for a month on Monday), said Assad should immediately stand down and that the SNC would go to the U.N. Security Council alone if the Arab League refused to. "The peaceful civilian revolution continues," Ghalioun said from Istanbul.
The question on everyone's mind now is, How will it end? Assad made it clear he would not stand down unless his people wanted him to (clearly oblivious to the thousands who took to the streets soon after he left the podium). Syrians would not kneel, he said. "All of these things can be summarized in a few words Syrian dignity," he said. On that, at least, Assad and his opponents can agree.