Residents who fled their homes in northern Syria to escape the government’s violent crackdown reacted with derision. On the Turkish side of the border, crowds of refugees chanted slogans against Assad, calling him a “liar” and demanding his ouster. On the Syrian side, displaced people reached by phone said that they siphoned electricity from a nearby village to power up a television set in time for his address and that they were dissatisfied by what they heard.
Before an auditorium of supporters, Assad announced intended economic and political reforms, including the formation of a 100-member “national dialogue authority” that would map out a path to those changes. But he said that without stability, there could be no real transformation.
“We can say that national dialogue is the slogan of the next stage,” Assad said. “The national dialogue could lead to amendments of the constitution or to a new constitution.”
Protesters, refugees and observers largely dismissed his concessions as empty promises amid a security crackdown that has left 1,250 people dead. Analysts said his speech made clear that the government felt threatened and was desperate to end the revolt.
Assad “is clearly concerned. They don’t do things unless they have to,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “On the other hand, they still haven’t changed the playbook. They still believe that by pretending there isn’t a problem and blaming it on [Islamists], outlaws and others, that people will buy that.”
In a reference to thousands of people flowing across the border into Turkey, Assad urged the “displaced” to return to their homes and said security forces would protect and not attack them. He was careful not to use the term refugees.
The Syrian military moved closer to the border last week, surrounding the frontier town of Bdama, in an apparent effort to stop the continued flow of refugees into Turkey.
Assad said he wanted Syria to stabilize so the troops could return to their barracks and promised to prosecute all those involved in bloodshed. He did not acknowledge that his soldiers were involved in shooting hundreds of unarmed protesters.
“What is happening today has nothing to do with reform, it has to do with vandalism,” he said. “This is a black period in Syria, and we should not continue in a black period.”
It was Assad’s third major address since the pro-democracy demonstrations, similar to those that have been reshaping other Arab countries, began in Syria, triggering violent crackdowns and retaliation from government forces.