“We are for supporting people’s demands, but we cannot support chaos,” he added to cheers from assembled members of the People’s Council, or parliament. “We are all reformers. Some demands of the people have not been met. But people were duped into taking to the streets.”
The 45-year-old Syrian leader seemed to be betting that his feared security services will be able to put down the protest movement, even at the cost of more bloodshed, and make Syria an exception to the regional uprisings that have toppled presidents in Tunisia and Egypt, precipitated civil war in Libya and threatened several long-serving leaders elsewhere. The first test of his calculation, Syrians said, is likely to come Friday, when some activists have called for another round of demonstrations.
The Syrian protests have resulted in about 60 deaths, according to human rights groups. They have raised the most serious threat to Assad since he took over from his deceased father 11 years ago at the head of a one-party government based on Arab nationalism, confrontation with Israel and invasive control by half a dozen security agencies.
Pro-democracy activists were particularly disappointed that Assad did not announce an end to the emergency rule that for the past 48 years has suffocated civil liberties and guaranteed a monopoly on political life by the ruling Baath Party. Instead, he said he has had draft legislation in hand for some time to loosen the draconian security rules but has been too busy with economic and international issues to get it passed and implemented.
That explanation did not satisfy human rights activists.
“What he said today, it will not stop the movement,” said Haitham al-Maleh, a longtime activist contacted by telephone. “There is a tsunami going across the Arab world, and it will cover Syria, too.”
Malath Aumran, an exiled Syrian cyber-activist, said Assad’s response fell far short of the protesters’ demands. “I’m really disappointed by what I heard,” he said. “He is totally ignoring our demands in the streets, like any other arrogant dictator.”
Several young professionals who are not involved in the protest movement said that they, too, were disappointed because the pervasive security apparatus in Damascus makes doing business — and nearly everything else — more difficult than it has to be.
Outside the country, the New York-based Human Rights Watch had the same reaction: “It’s extremely disappointing that President al-Assad has done nothing more than repeat the same vague promises of reform that he’s been uttering for over a decade,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa division.