Monday, June 20, 2011

Assad Addresses an Uneasy Nation

Syria’s President: ‘Saboteurs’ are Trying to Exploit a Movement Seeking Legitimate Reforms

The Associated Press
Monday, June 20 2011

BEIRUT — Syria’s embattled president said Monday his regime would consider political reforms, including ending his Baath Party’s monopoly on power, but gave no sign he might step down, a key demand of nationwide protests.

The opposition dismissed Bashar Assad’s speech, saying it lacked any clear move toward democracy. Activists said thousands of people took to the streets to protest in several cities.

Assad’s 70-minute, televised address was only his third public speech since the pro-democracy uprising began in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Much of his message was not new, including his claim that the unrest is being driven by armed thugs and foreign conspirators.

“Saboteurs” were trying to exploit legitimate demands for reform, he said.

“What is happening today has nothing to do with reform. It has to do with vandalism,” Assad told supporters at Damascus University, where he stood before red, white and black Syrian flags. “There can be no development without stability, and no reform through vandalism.”

But he also announced that a “national dialogue” would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way for formation of political parties other than the ruling Baath Party.

He said expects a package of reforms by September or the end of the year at the latest.

The vague timetable and few specifics — and lack of any clear move toward ending the Assad family’s 40-year rule — left Syrian dissidents deeply dissatisfied.

“It did not give a vision about beginning a new period to start a transfer from a dictatorship into a national democratic regime with political pluralism,” Hassan Abdul-Azim, a prominent opposition figure, told The Associated Press.

Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which tracks the protest movement, said the speech drove thousands of opposition supporters into the streets, calling for the downfall of the regime. That claim could not be independently confirmed immediately.

The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military, pro-regime gunmen and the country’s other security forces to crush the protest movement. The deadly crackdown has only fueled the protests, in which tens of thousands have insisted they will accept nothing less than the regime’s downfall.

Assad, 45, who inherited power in 2000 after his father’s death, has made a series of overtures to try to ease the growing outrage, lifting the decades-old emergency laws that give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and granting Syrian nationality to thousands of Kurds, a long-ostracized minority.

But the overtures did nothing to sap the movement’s momentum. Protesters dismissed them as either symbolic or coming far too late.

In Monday’s speech, he warned that the country’s economy will take a beating unless the unrest ends — a message aimed at his supporters in the business community and prosperous merchant classes.

“The most dangerous thing we face in the coming period is the weakness or the collapse of the Syrian economy,” he said.

“We want the people to back to reforms but we must isolate true reformers from saboteurs,” he said.

International pressure on the regime has been mounting steadily and nearly 11,000 people have fled into neighboring Turkey in an embarrassing spectacle for one of the most tightly controlled countries in the Middle East.

Assad urged the refugees to return home, saying there will be no retaliation against them.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday said Syria’s leader must reform or go. Hague also said he hopes Turkey will play an influential role.

“I hope our Turkish colleagues will bring every possible pressure to bear on the Assad regime with a very clear message that they are losing legitimacy and that Assad should reform or step aside,” Hague said as he arrived in Luxembourg for a meeting of European Union foreign ministers.

They are expected to discuss expanding sanctions on Syria, where the government is cracking down brutally on dissent.

On Monday, the government tried to back up its claim that criminals were behind the unrest by taking journalists and foreign diplomats on a trip to a northern town where authorities say armed groups killed 120 security personnel two weeks ago.

The trip to Jisr al-Shughour in the restive Idlib province near the border with Turkey was organized jointly by the Syrian foreign ministry and the military. It included 70 Western and Arab diplomats, including U.S. ambassador Robert Ford.

Maj. Gen. Riad Haddad, head of the Syrian military’s political department, told journalists on the trip that the military will continue to pursue gunmen “in every village where they are found, even near the Turkish border.”

In addition to the refugees in Turkey, some 5,000 people who fled their homes are camped out on the Syrian side of the border and face dwindling resources.

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