Syrian President Bashar Assad gave a defiant speech on Sunday at the packed Damascus Opera House, linking the opposition with al-Qaida terrorists and rallying his faction to remain steadfast.
The Syrian opposition rejected his proposals and called his speech a declaration of war.
Assad framed his speech as a new plan for a political solution, but it turned out to be a rallying cry, rejecting any concessions and signaling that he would continue his war “to defend the nation.” He called those opposing him “terrorists,” linking them with al-Qaida, thus trying to draw parallels to the West’s “war on terror.”
The United Nations says 60,000 people have been killed in the war so far.
In his first public speech in six months, Assad linked the opposition with Islamist terrorists and pitted the conflict in patriotic nationalist terms, as the nation fighting against Western-backed terrorists.
“We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word. This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war of defending the nation.” He went on to state, “Terrorists holding the views of al-Qaida who call themselves jihadists are the ones running the terrorist operations here and we are fighting them. It is not impossible to destroy them if we have the courage.
“Should we speak to gangs recruited abroad that follow the orders of foreigners? Should we have official dialogue with a puppet made by the West which has scripted its lines?” Assad later brought in the Palestinian issue, saying that Syria is bearing “the brunt of standing with the Palestinian people in their just cause for decades...” He went on to take what seemed to be a swipe at Hamas for abandoning their base in Syria and their support for his government, stating, “I salute every honest Palestinian who valued the Syrian stances and did not treat Syria as a hotel which he leaves when the service goes downhill.”
Prof. Barry Rubin, the director of the GLORIA Center and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, says that this was a “very important speech because what he is basically saying is that this is going all the way down to the end – kill or be killed. This tells us everything we need to know about the future in Syria.”
Rubin adds that “one side is going to win and one side is going to lose,” and the results of this will be very important in telling us what lies ahead. “Assad is not giving up, and neither is the opposition. There will be no settlement.”
Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, says that in essence “Assad said nothing new and he keeps returning to the same things…saying the revolution is not real. I don’t even think Assad believes what he is saying himself.”
When asked if Assad is telling the truth to some degree by stating that the opposition is dominated by Islamists, Zisser responded that there are some, but this is not the “real cause of the revolution, which came from the periphery” originating for real reasons rooted in socioeconomic and other grievances.
There have been some confirmed reports that Islamists make up a major part of the rebel forces and the US State Department designated one of them, the al-Nusra Front, as a terrorist organization and an al-Qaida front organization.
George Sabra, the vice president of the opposition National Coalition, told Reuters in response to the speech that Assad’s peace plan was a farce and that “We should see it rather as a declaration that he will continue his war against the Syrian people.”
Sabra went on to declare, “The appropriate response is to continue to resist this unacceptable regime, and for the Free Syrian Army to continue its work in liberating Syria until every inch of land is free.”
The international response to the speech was negative as the EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, demanded in response to the speech that Assad must step down before any political transition could take place.
In addition, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called for an international response on Sunday, saying “If it is clear now that Assad will not do anything new, then the UN Security Council must decide on a stance on the situation in Syria.”
Iran’s Press TV reported that a meeting took place in Tehran between Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad and Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdullahian. Following the meeting, Abdullahian said that Syria was fighting against terrorists and that Assad is “paying special attention to sending humanitarian aid to the conflict areas.”
Meanwhile, the London-based Arab daily Al-Hayat reported on Friday that Iran was seeking a role in any transition while at the same time making major efforts to keep Assad in power, seeing his fall as a heavy blow to its regional position.
Efforts to end the conflict seem to be at a dead end as UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has been shuttling between Assad, the opposition, and other international players in order to broker a cease-fire, with no results to show for it.
Rubin predicts that the fighting will go on through this year and will continue until one side wins. He says “there is zero chance that Syria will be divided into countries” and that eventually one side would get the upper hand.
Rubin concludes, “People in the West still cannot understand the way the Middle East game is played no matter how many examples they have witnessed. Assad summed up the Middle East mentality pretty well when he said, ‘It is more important to be feared than to be respected.’”