Appearing weary but defiant as he addressed cheering supporters at the Opera House in central Damascus, the president sketched a plan for what he called a period of “transition,” in which a new government would be formed, a national pact would be drafted and a referendum would be held.
Assad’s proposals were vague, however, and made no mention of a mechanism under which he would surrender any of his powers, let alone step aside, as the opposition and most international governments have called for. He put the onus of responsibility for the plan on Western powers, which he said must end their support for the opposition before the implementation of a cease-fire and the convening of a national conference to chart reforms.
In his first public speech since June, Assad also made clear that his priority is to crush by force the nearly two-year-long uprising against his rule, labeling his opponents “terrorists” and “criminals.”
“This is a fight between the country and its enemies, between the people and the criminals,” he said.
“I would like to reassure everyone we will not stop the fight against terrorism as long as there is one single terrorist left in the land of Syria,” he added, prompting the packed theater to erupt in applause and chants of “God, Bashar and our brave army!”
It was one of numerous outbursts of noisy acclamation during the 50-minute speech, which culminated with members of the almost exclusively male audience mobbing Assad onstage with hugs and other displays of devotion, presumably intended to remind the world that he still enjoys staunch support.
The Internet was shut down across Damascus as Assad spoke, and government forces set up extra checkpoints around the capital, a reminder of the threat posed by the rebels even in the heart of the regime’s stronghold.
But the speech left little doubt that Assad thinks he can survive the revolt against his rule without making concessions, despite the soaring death toll and his army’s loss of control over large swaths of territory.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland dismissed the proposals as “yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and . . . to further perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people.”
Though his comments and proposals were broadly similar to those he has made in the past, conditions on the ground have changed significantly in the six months since he last addressed the country. The rebels fighting loosely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army have seized control of large chunks of territory in the north and east, along with significant quantities of weaponry, making it all the more extraordinary, analysts said, that Assad’s thinking seems not to have shifted.