Assad’s speech echoes Gaddafi’s final desperate rallies


It was the first time in two years of revolution we have seen support for the Syrian leader so choreographed, accompanied by such fist-pumping chants from the audience.

Even the slogans were the same as the slain Libyan dictator: “God, Syria, Bashar, enough”.

Reminiscent too was the rambling delivery, leaping incoherently back and forth between vague peace proposals and unremitting imprecations against the opposition: “al-Qaeda”, “armed criminals”, “foreign terrorists” were also prominent in Col Muammar Gaddafi’s vocabulary.

Then there were the lapses into bizarre sentimentality, as when he announced: “I look at the eyes of Syria’s children and I don’t see any happiness” – something that would hardly surprise anyone who had watched the news over the last two years.

Mr Assad is no Gaddafi, of course. But his smoother, better-educated, more rational persona, lacking the Gaddafi instinct for the absurd, makes him in some ways even more of a mystery.

There was always a sense that Col Gaddafi was happy to go down fighting, preferring melodrama in death to the dull reality of compromise or surrender. Mr Assad presents himself as someone who really is in full control of events, the contrast between his discourse and the reality of events even more puzzling.

If the rebels were on the run, his outlining of the steps by which they might hand themselves in to his mercy might be seen as magisterial. If he were on the verge of victory, his proposal that his enemies should lay down their weapons, their foreign backers withdraw, in return for a generous pledge of “national dialogue” thereafter might sound convincing.

But that is not the situation in Syria today. Mr Assad has outlived some over-optimistic predictions of his imminent defeat, but there is no sense in which he could be described as winning.

He has lost large parts of the country, including half the biggest city, and significant numbers of armed men are at the gates of Damascus itself.

The real question is not why the rebels should accept these modest proposals but why they should negotiate at all when they think Mr Assad is doomed. He talks of mobilising the national defences as if they weren’t already in disarray, opposition forces just a few miles from where he was speaking.

At the end, Mr Assad was mobbed by his fans, just as Col Gaddafi would be during his dramatic final appearances in Tripoli. Were they just expressing their love for their leader? Or was it rather panic, and a clue to the speech’s real purpose – a last rallying cry, a desperate attempt to assure the last remaining faithful that in their time of need, their leader had not forgotten them.