It’s easy to scoff about the speech Bashar Assad delivered to the Syrian parliament on Wednesday.
The interminable, seemingly rambling oratory. The absence of specific commitments to reform. The risible conspiracy theorizing. The “spontaneous” interruptions from adoring legislators: “God, Syria and Bashar only,” they chanted. “Our souls, our blood, we sacrifice for you.” And my particular favorite, “The Arab world is too small for you; you should govern the whole world, Mr President.”
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Locals in the capital, according to some of the Western journalists
reporting from Damascus, weren’t too impressed either. People had
gathered in cafes to watch, and the speech was broadcast over
loudspeakers, noted a France 24 correspondent, but they quickly returned
to their normal business. Assad didn’t promise anything, he didn’t say
anything concrete, this reporter almost wailed.
Aah, but he did. Nothing binding about rescinding emergency laws or
opening up the political process – nothing, that is, that would justify
Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary CBS Face the Nation utterance on Sunday:
“There is a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of
Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have
said they believe he's a reformer.”
But there was meat in the message there, nonetheless -- a ruthless
rationale amid the rambling. For Syria’s dictator, whose dutiful armed
personnel have gunned down dozens of his people in the last few days,
drew a very clear line between protesters and loyal Syrians.
Protesters in other Arab nations were pushing positive demands for
change, and meeting the aspirations of the masses was a good thing, he
said. But no one in his Syria had the slightest need to protest, since
he was already working tirelessly to meet the needs of the people.
“Whoever wants reform, we are here,” he said paternally, eminently
reasonable. “Reform is not seasonal. There are no real hurdles to it.”
Thus it could only be enemies and plotters and conspirators and outside
forces who were fostering the unrest of recent days. And he made plain
that he, his security establishment and all good Syrians would stand
tall and “unite” against such toxic forces, against the “big plot,” the
Almost three decades after the event, the savagery with which his father
Hafez quashed a potential Islamic uprising, by sending the military to
bomb and shell and gun down thousands upon thousands of people at Hama
in February 1982, still stands as a terrifying deterrent to any Syrian
contemplating taking their dissatisfaction with the dictatorship into
the streets. Those killings stand as the deadliest single action by an
Arab leader against his own people in the modern history of our region.
It remains dangerous for Syrians to so much as put words like “Hama” and
“massacre” into the same sentence.
What Bashar Assad did on Wednesday, with his talk of unity and standing
tall and prevailing over devious enemies, was to link himself to his
father’s brutal legacy.
He most certainly did not make concessions. He had seen all too clearly
where a public willingness to nervously concede to demands for reform
had gotten the likes of Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s
Hosni Mubarak. Assad wasn’t going down that route.
No, this was Assad the smiling tiger, vowing to retain his primacy. This was Assad, self-confident to the point of smug laughing off –
with that curious high-pitched giggle of his –
the "lies" being peddled about Syria on hostile satellite TV stations. This
was Assad telling those of his people who may have fancied that they
smelled Mubarak-style weakness, who may have thought they could try
their luck, that they have misjudged the moment. This was Assad, iron
fist in velvet glove, telling those who had come out onto the streets
that they had been “duped” by Syria’s fiendish enemies, and that while
he was magnanimous enough to forgive them for what they had done thus
far, he would not be so tolerant again.
And this was Assad, most importantly, relishing the simple fact that,
whereas the armed forces in Tunisia and Egypt chose not to open fire to
put down the people’s protests, there is no daylight between him and his
Word is that further protests are being planned for Friday. We will see
then whether Syria’s opposition got the message he delivered on
Wednesday, and whether that message fulfilled its intimidatory purpose.