Assad’s defiant tone cast a shadow over the recent surge of diplomatic activity spearheaded by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been quietly but forcefully trying to negotiate a settlement, building on an agreement reached between Russia and the United States last summer in Geneva that stressed the need for a political solution but refrained from specifying what role, if any, Assad should play.
Assad made it clear that he was not prepared to negotiate either with the exiled Syrian political opposition or the rebels fighting on the ground, without whom any peace deal would be unsuccessful. He denounced the armed rebels as Islamist ideologues linked to al-Qaeda and the political opposition as Western “puppets” who have betrayed Syria.
“They are the enemies of God, and they will go to hell,” he said.
Instead, he spelled out his conviction that the initially peaceful revolt against his rule, which subsequently spiraled into armed rebellion, forms part of a Western-led conspiracy in which al-Qaeda members are being sponsored to destroy Syria.
Since Assad last spoke, there has been an influx of foreign fighters into Syria. The radical al-Nusra Front, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, has emerged as a key player in the rebellion, lending more credence than in the past to Assad’s allegation that extremists are participating in the revolt.
But Assad derided the entire opposition as lacking in ideology, and at no point did he suggest that his reform package was intended to lead to a more democratic system of governance, the key demand of the majority of those who oppose his rule.
“Is this a revolution and are these revolutionaries? By God, I say they are a bunch of criminals,” the president said.
From the point of view of those trying to mediate a political solution, the speech was “catastrophic,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
“On the regime side, there is only one approach, which is to use more and more force, and still somehow they believe they can get through this,” he said.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the umbrella group representing the political opposition, said the speech showed that Assad is “incapable of initiating a political solution,” and it urged international support for removing the president from power.
‘We defend you, Bashar!’
The speech’s timing was as significant as its message. In recent weeks, the rebels’ small but important military gains have clearly put pressure on Russia and Iran, Syria’s key allies, to intensify efforts to find a negotiated settlement.
Assad’s failure to appear in public for several months had heightened speculation that he was feeling the pressure and had become increasingly isolated in his palace, perhaps starting to fear for his future and safety.
Yet although he appeared pale and thin, his resolve was clearly undimmed. “Under no circumstances will we forfeit our principles. We will not give up our rights, we will defend our country, and we will continue as we always did,” Assad said.
The audience responded, “With our blood and our souls, we defend you, Bashar!”
Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.