Assad, in an internationally televised speech, portrayed himself Wednesday as a reformer eager to respond to complaints from Syria’s 23 million citizens. But the demonstrations that have broken out in Damascus, Daraa, Hama and other Syrian cities since March 18 represent “chaos,” he said, and cannot be tolerated if the country is to remain strong in the struggle against Israeli occupation of Arab land.
“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.
The Obama administration also criticized Assad for not addressing popular grievances. “We feel the speech fell short with respects to the kinds of reforms that the Syrian people demanded and what President Assad’s own advisers suggested was coming,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Assad’s speech, at the ornate parliament building in Damascus, was frequently interrupted by legislators who stood to shout their support. One member, wearing an Islamic scarf over her hair, rose to recite a short poem to Assad and the glory of Syria, while outside, pro-government demonstrators shouted and waved their fists for television cameras.
“With our souls, with our blood, we are supporting you, oh Assad,” they cried in unison.
Assad, acknowledging the tributes, said he took heart from the noisy expressions of support in pro-government demonstrations Tuesday and Wednesday. But people should understand, he added, that it is the president himself who supports the Syrian nation with his soul and his blood.
The tightly scripted proceedings, which lasted a little more than an hour, gave the impression of a show of support for the Syrian leadership at a time of crisis rather than offering the moment of serious concessions that many Syrians and others had expected.
Assad’s overarching explanation of the violent protests was that the unnamed plotters were misleading the people to foment discord between Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority and the Alawite minority from which the Assad family springs and on which it has based four decades of iron-fisted rule.
This was particularly true in Daraa, he said, a dusty border crossing on the road between Damascus and Amman. Known mainly as the place where Lawrence of Arabia said he was raped by a Turkish army officer, it gained new fame last week when security forces opened fire on protesters there in an encounter made visible around the world by cellphone cameras and Internet transmissions.
“The people of Daraa are the people of patriotism and the people of pan-Arab nationalism,” Assad declared, adding that they would never have risen up had they not been tricked.
He said the government had ordered security forces not to open fire. But the confrontation nevertheless escalated into bloodshed, he said, because of “chaos in the streets” incited by the plotters.
A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.