Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Critics Decry Assad Speech but Many Rally for the President

Tens of Thousands of Syrians Stage pro-Assad Rallies following President’s Speech

The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 21 2011

BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of people waving flags and pictures of Bashar Assad converged on Syria’s main squares Tuesday, pledging allegiance to their president in the latest show of government support to counter a three-month uprising against his authoritarian rule.

The rallies came a day after President Assad offered a vague plan for political reform, in a speech rejected by the opposition, whose supporters took to the streets immediately afterward, shouting “Liar!” Assad had shown no sign of readiness to end his family’s long political domination of Syria, a key opposition demand.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of Syrians took part in boisterous pro-regime demonstrations, shouting, “The people want Bashar Assad!” and releasing black, white and red balloons — colors of the Syrian flag.

The largest gathering appeared to be in Damascus, but Syrian state TV showed similar demonstrations in the northern cities of Aleppo and Latakia, Hasaka in the northeast, and the southern city of Daraa.

Assad’s speech — and Tuesday’s demonstrations — showed the president clearly intends to try to ride out the wave of pro-democracy protests, showing the steely determination that has kept the Assad family in power for 40 years.

But the mobilized opposition appeared to be digging in as well, bracing for a showdown in one of the deadliest uprisings of the Arab Spring.

The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military and security forces to crush the protest movement that erupted in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

The International Committee of the Red Cross announced in Geneva on Tuesday the Syrian government has promised to give it and the Syrian Red Crescent more access to Syrians wounded and detained in the crackdown.

The announcement came after ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger met with Prime Minister Adel Safar and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Damascus. Kellenberger had urged Syria to allow the humanitarian organizations to operate unhindered to assess the needs of those affected in the unrest and military operations.

Assad’s speech at Damascus University on Monday was only his third public appearance since the uprising began in March. He said a national dialogue would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to forming political parties other than the ruling Baath Party. He acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but he rehashed allegations that “saboteurs” were exploiting the movement.

The U.N. refugee agency’s spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said Tuesday that 500 to 1,000 people a day have been crossing from northern Syria into Turkey since June 7 and more than 10,000 Syrian refugees are being sheltered by Turkish authorities in four border camps.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said late Monday that Assad’s speech was welcome but “not enough.”

“He wants to (carry out reforms), but he has to say clearly and with determination: ‘Things have changed, we are moving to a multiparty system. Whatever the people’s will is, it will happen and I will bring about this transition,’” Gul said.

“As soon as he says this, I believe, he will be able to get ahead of the situation and take things under control. Maybe he is saying these things in between the lines, but he has to say them clearly,” the Turkish president said.

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