Analysis: Assad the intimidator

We’re reforming all the time, smiled Syria’s tyrant. So anyone demanding more must be an enemy. And we all know how our enemies are treated.

Assad 311 (B) (photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)
Assad 311 (B)
(photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)
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.”
RELATED:Bowing to pressure, Assad fires cabinetSyrian VP: Assad to announce big decision in 2 daysSyrian forces open fire to disperse Deraa protest
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 “conspiracy.”
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 troops.
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.