Aleppo, Syria - Hamid Habu looked puzzled when a foreigner approached him in the street. He was neither aware that President Bashar Assad had given his first speech in more than six months nor did he really care.
“What did he talk about?” the 41-year old heating repair man asked. “Is he going to end the war?”
Though Western politicians and Syrian exiles were quick to condemn Assad’s soliloquy as out of touch with reality, residents in the country’s largest city of Aleppo barely took notice of their president’s surprise appearance. Most lacked electricity to power their televisions while others were more concerned with buying the daily necessities they need to survive.
Muhammad Faturi spends most of his day waiting in line to buy bread. The war has disrupted flour deliveries and gas supplies, leaving Aleppo residents to wait up to seven hours to buy a bag of bread. Between his time in bread lines and work in his paint store, he has few moments to contemplate the luxuries.
“I heard Assad offered the opposition some concessions,” he told The Media Line as customers in front of him pushed and shoved to get closer to the delivery window. “I think it’s a good thing.”
In the speech, Assad offered his opponents no olive branch but rather more of the same punishing retribution he has been meting out since demonstrators first took to the streets in March 2011. He lambasted his adversaries as “enemies of God and puppets of the West.”
The Syrian opposition group known as the National Coalition, in turn declared that, “the speech by Bashar Assad confirms his incompetence as a head of state.”
The State Department also chimed in noting that Assad’s “initiative is detached from reality.”
But in Aleppo, many did not understand why foreigners were so interested in gauging their reaction to what they described as a routine presidential appearance. In a country accustomed to its leader streaming a constant torrent of meaningless rhetoric, few paid attention to his latest attempt.
“The president makes speeches all the time,” Sami Zeidan said outside a pharmacy. “We don’t listen to what he says. Why should this time be different?”
Instead Zeidan was more focused on trying to find medicine for his daughter’s bronchitis. With drugs in short supply, most of the pharmacists he visited apologetically referred him to others.
“What good are speeches and reactions when children cannot breathe?” he asked The Media Line.
Syrians’ indifference to Assad’s speech goes far beyond their preoccupation with other matters. Many here can no longer tell the difference between the regime and the opposition fighting it. “Bashar is no worse than the Free Army (FSA),” says a man named Muhammad, referring to the band of rebels fighting the regime. “They do the same things Bashar’s men do.”
As the fighting in Aleppo has reached a stalemate, residents have turned their ire against the rebels who shattered their tranquil lives when they dislodged regime forces from most of the city. But instead of being rewarded with freedom, residents were repaid with the collapse of daily life that has left them bitter and angry.
“Bashar is right to call them enemies,” shouted a man who would only give his name as Ahmad. “Look at the destruction all around. They are to blame.”
With its skyline reduced to rubble, rivers of water from broken water pipes and endless shelling, Aleppo has seen significant destruction. And few here are ready to sacrifice anymore for a war that cost so much.
Sentiments like these partially explain Assad’s uncompromising line. With so many Syrians exhausted with a war that has little to show for itself, his harsh tone is slowly but gradually wearing down opposition to his continued rule.
“I don’t see how he will step down when he acts so triumphantly,” said Fawzi Hayyati trying to avoid the slippery mud in a main thoroughfare. “He sounds like he expects to be president forever. And the people are starting to believe him.”
His friend Mazin Krini nodded in agreement. “Assad looks strong as the FSA looks increasingly weak. I think he has the upper hand.”
As long as that continues, Assad can remain defiant in the face of an opposition on the ropes and a paralyzed international community that offers nothing more than daily condemnations of his policies.