Syria’s embattled leader, Bashar al-Assad, has blamed “saboteurs” backed by foreign powers for fomenting widespread civil unrest and said reform will not be possible while nationwide chaos continues.
Assad’s speech had been widely anticipated inside Syria and hailed in advance as potentially “groundbreaking”. But the hour-long address offered no substantive concessions to demonstrators who had demanded an overhaul of laws that have greatly restricted freedoms for more than four decades.
Opposition activists reacted furiously, with protesters taking to the streets in several cities soon after the speech ended. Around 300 marchers in the Irbin suburb of Damascus chanted “No to dialogue with murderers,” a witness told Reuters by telephone.
“There is no middle option between tyranny and democracy,” opposition organiser, Maluth Aumran, said on Twitter. “We are in the 98th day of protests and Bashar is still in denial.”
The centrepiece of the hour-long speech was a call for a “national dialogue”, which Assad said could “lead to a news Syrian constitution”. He said committees had been formed to reform electoral laws and to introduce a freer press in Syria, which has banned most foreign journalists since March.
He conceded that the past three months of violence had “tarnished the image of Syria abroad and weakened the political position of the nation. He also admitted that the violence had imperilled the economy. “The collapse of the Syrian economy is the most serious problem we face. We need a new economic system to safeguard the citizens.”
Assad repeatedly spoke of a conspiracy against Syria, a familiar theme during his two previous addresses in March and April. “Why is it happening?,” he asked. “Because of our political stances, which benefit our interests and principles. These conspiracies are designed outside and perpetrated inside Syria.”
He also blamed “religious extremists”, who he said had taken advantage of the ongoing trouble. “This is the sort of ideology that we haven’t seen for many decades. They are trying to spread chaos in the name of freedom.”
However, Assad also claimed to have met with Syrian citizens, who had “legitimate demands’. He said he had compiled a list of 1,200 such demands, dealing with such issues as passports and basic services.
“Some think the government is dragging its feet,” he said. “I want to assure you that reform for us is a conviction.”
Assad did signal electoral and constitutional reforms, which he said would be part of a deep transformation of the country. But he offered no detail or timeframe.
He claimed that the army acted to quell an uprising in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, which saw some of the worst violence since the uprisings began. Almost all residents fled the town as the Syrian army advanced on it, with many now having crossed the border into Turkey where they are being housed in refugee camps.
Assad urged all residents to return to the town and pledged they would be safe to do so.