AMMAN - Hundreds of people took to the streets on Wednesday in the port city of Latakia chanting "freedom" after President Bashar Assad made a speech playing down unprecedented protests against his rule."What has happened so far only strengthens Syria," he said, adding that
"Syrian people are peaceful but will not hesitate to defend their causes
and principles if the must."
Several residents said they heard shots fired in the al-Sleibeh old district of the city, where one of at least two demonstrations took place, as security forces confronted the demonstrators.
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In his first speech to parliament since demonstrations erupted two weeks ago, Assad claimed his country has become the target of an external plot.
"Syria has become the target of a big plot from outside," Assad claimed. "I
am speaking to you at an extraordinary moment...it is a
test of our unity. These tests repeat themselves due to plots
threatening our homeland."
widely expected to speak about reforms, including abolishing the
emergency law that has been in place in Syria for nearly fifty years,
did not mention any actual changes in existent laws. He assured his
people that security forces "would not attack protesters."
The Syrian president's began his nearly half-hour speech to chants of "We defend you with our blood, life," and was occasionally interrupted by chants from different members of parliament, such as one who called out "you
are steadfast, generous to the poor and good people defend us with
strength, the free people you have heard them, we are with you, at the
time, everywhere, the people is with you, God is with you."
Speaking on the events
and people of Deraa, where some of the bloodiest
protests have taken place, Assad said that though Deraa "is not in the
heart of Syria it is in the hearts of Syrians," adding that the border
city "is in the forefront in confronting the
Israeli enemy and defending the nation."
"No one can be
defending and conspiring at the same time," he said, "this cannot
happen. The people of Deraa do not have any responsibility in what has
happened. We are all with Deraa."
"Whoever is part of the Syrian
nation always stands tall," Assad added. "Our enemies act every day in
an organized and public matter in order to harm Syria."
Assad said the protesters are "smart in their timing, but stupid by choosing a country that will not be defeated by any step."
The Syrian president mentioned more than once a mixture of "internal
and foreign" factors influencing the protests, alluded to what he
called the "domino effect"
pursued by the "past administration in the United States," adding that
the former US president's intentions backfired and had the "opposite
effect" in the region.