Defiant Assad blames country’s turmoil on ‘Israeli plot’

Syrian ruler fails to announce reforms or lift emergency law; analysts: Opponents of regime should be careful what they wish for.

March 31, 2011 00:51

Assad 311 reuters. (photo credit: reuters)

Addressing his people for the first time since popular unrest erupted nearly two weeks ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday blamed a foreign conspiracy for the unrest and made no substantive pledges on implementing much-awaited reform.

“Our enemies work every day in an organized and public fashion to hurt Syria,” he told parliament. “Our enemies’ aim was to divide Syria as a country and force an Israeli agenda onto it, and they will continue to try and try again.”

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Assad said Deraa, a southern city near the Golan Heights, where some of the bloodiest clashes with protesters have taken place, “is in the forefront in confronting the Israeli enemy and defending the nation.”

After the speech, hundreds took to the streets of the coastal city of Latakia – another hotbed of revolt in recent weeks – chanting “Freedom!” Several residents said they heard gunfire as security forces clashed with demonstrators.

Assad said he supported the principle of reform, but offered no specifics on changing Syria’s repressive one-party system.

“Implementing reforms is not a fad. When it’s just a reflection of a wave that the region is living, it is destructive,” he said.

“Syria today is being subjected to a big conspiracy, whose threads extend from countries near and far,” Assad added, without naming any countries.

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Syria’s ambassador to Britain, Sami Khiyami, told BBC World News that he expected to see reforms – including ending the state of emergency and implementing multi-party rule – implemented within months, but he offered no additional details.

“We can sometimes postpone [dealing with] suffering that emergency law may cause,” Assad said in a speech frequently interrupted by applause. “But we cannot postpone the suffering of a child whose father does not have enough money to treat him.”

Assad said that a minority of people had tried to “spark chaos” in Deraa, but that their will would be thwarted by the majority. He said clear instructions had been issued to security forces not to harm anyone during the protests, in which at least 61 people are believed to have been killed.

In Israel, analysts tried to envision the shape Syria might take in a post-Assad era.

“The idea that these regimes will be replaced by liberal democracies is too good to be true,” Moshe Maoz, a Syria expert at Hebrew University told Reuters. “If he stays he might prove more pragmatic.

He wants the Golan Heights from Israel. His father lost it...

and the prestige involved is very important to him.”

“Any new regime is not going to be able to compromise its legitimacy by reaching any agreement with Israel,” said Gabriel Ben-Dor, of Haifa University.

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with Syria from 1992 to 1995, wrote earlier this week that it’s unclear whether Assad’s ouster would help or harm Israel.

“Syria is the keystone of the pro-Iran axis. Weakening the Assad regime – to say nothing of its collapse – would be a blow to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah,” he wrote in Yediot Aharonot, but added that instability in the country would also “create a temptation for Syria and Iran to ease the pressure on Syria by heating up the conflict with Israel.”

Rabinovich wrote that any plans Israeli decision-makers may have had to pursue peace with Damascus will now likely be shelved.

“There is no sense in making a deal like that with a regime whose stability is strongly in question,” he wrote. “Israeli policy requires a correct analysis of developments in Syria: security readiness, conversation and strong coordination with the United States and other allies – but also an open mind [to capitalize] on the opportunities presented.”

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said it was for the Syrian people to judge the speech, but dismissed Assad’s assertion that Syria was subject “to a big conspiracy, whose threads extend from countries near and far.”

“It’s far too easy to look for conspiracy theories [than to] respond in a meaningful way to the call for reform,” Toner said. “We expect they [the Syrian people] are going to be disappointed. We feel the speech fell short with respect to the kind of reforms that the Syrian people demanded and what President Assad’s own advisers suggested was coming.”

“It’s clear to us that it didn’t really have much substance to it and didn’t talk about specific reforms, as was... suggested in the run-up to the speech,” he said.

David W. Lesch, a Trinity University scholar who received unprecedented access to Assad in 2004 and 2005 while writing a book on him, wrote Wednesday in The New York Times that in recent years the Syrian president began “to equate his well-being with that of his country, and the sycophants around him reinforced the notion. It was obvious that he was president for life.”

Still, Lesch wrote, Syria, after Assad, could be even more destabilizing for the region than it was under the repressive Baathist regime.

“Anti-Assad elements should be careful what they wish for,” he cautioned. “Syria is ethnically and religiously diverse and, with the precipitous removal of central authority, it could very well implode like Iraq. That is why the Obama administration wants him to stay in power, even as it admonishes him to choose the path of reform.”

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