Analysis: Is Assad's speech Syria's last chance?

Syrian President will take to the podium Thursday for only the third time during his presidency.

assad waving 88 (photo credit: )
assad waving 88
(photo credit: )
Syria's President Bashar Assad doesn't give speeches to his people very often. In fact, he has done it twice: first in July 2000, when he was inaugurated, and again in March 2005, when he announced to his people that Syria would end its three-decade-long military presence in Lebanon. On Thursday he will take to the podium again, reports SANA, Syria's government news agency, and anticipation runs high about his address from the auditorium of Damascus University. Whatever it is, it better be good, because the heat is on and it has never been so hot. This week, the UN investigating team that, last month, implicated Syria in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has called on Syria to allow the questioning in Beirut of six high-ranking Syrian officials. That list includes General Assef Shawkat, Assad's powerful brother-in-law. Assad has not yet responded. He clearly fears that the Lebanese government might arrest the six. But what can he do? The Ba'athist dictatorship has become increasingly isolated - not only by the Western "pro-Zionist bullies‚" as the Syrians call the US, France and the UK, but by its own Arab buddies. "If the hands of the Syrian regime are clean and not stained with the blood of al-Hariri, they should cooperate," wrote Editor-in-Chief Ahmed al-Jarrallah in Kuwait's English-language daily, Arab Times. "If not, the regime should act on the advice of the Egyptian president." That advice remains undisclosed. But the emergency meeting between the two last week - and the one that followed this week with the Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa - hints at the extent of the danger to the Syrian regime. Rather than teaming up to defend the beleaguered state from the Western threats, Arab leaders have been telling the Syrian leaders that they should comply with the UN resolutions and cooperate with the investigation. A unanimous UN Security Council resolution passed two weeks ago - with the assent of the Algerian delegate representing the Arab states - demands that Syria cooperate with the Mehlis investigation or face "further action," a veiled reference to economic sanctions. And when Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Waleed al-Mualem recently did the rounds of the Arab states to rally up support for his country, he was basically told the same thing: cooperate. For the Arab states, most of which are also under pressure from the US to reform, this fight is not worth getting bruised over. Assad has few options left to him, besides cooperation - an act that could cause the regime's collapse if it is indeed guilty. So in the last couple of weeks the regime, which has long been accused of violating human rights (and has thousands of political prisoners languishing in jails to prove it), has been scrambling to appear as if it is really reforming itself. The most recent move was a proposal on Monday to allow the creation of other political parties, reports SANA. Since the rise of the Ba'ath Party in Syria, only the Arab nationalist and left-leaning parties have been allowed to exist. All else is illegal. The government also released 190 political prisoners, of an estimated 2,500, and announced it would begin collecting statistics on the Kurds, many of whom have been denied Syrian nationality since 1962, reports Syria Today. Syria has long been accused of oppressing its Kurdish minority. A census appears to be an initital step towards granting them citizenship. Once those moves would have been applauded in the West. But in light of the serious accusations now aimed at Damascus, the intentions behind the moves are questionable. "This could be an externally aimed move to play the democracy game," said Professor Moshe Maoz, a Syria expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Netanya College. Maoz said it also could be an attempt to reduce the pressure of rising discontent from its citizens at a time when the regime is weak. Whatever the reason, it's not likely to help. Only another ground-breaking announcement like the one in March could possibly save the regime.