Protesters take to streets in Syria after Assad speech

EU and US ratchet up the pressure on Damascus; West dismisses Syrian president's accusations that riots instigated by "foreign conspirators and saboteurs."

Assad speaking 311 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Assad speaking 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
Protesters swept into the streets in cities across Syria on Monday, following a speech by President Bashar Assad that left anti-government demonstrators frustrated, and officials in the European Union threatening to widen sanctions against his regime.
Assad’s speech on Monday in Damascus, only the third he’s given since the uprising began in March, offered vague promises of reform and a “national dialogue,” but is not expected to placate protesters who have taken to the streets across the country in a popular uprising against his rule.
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As of Monday, the regime’s violent crackdown of the uprising has left an estimated 1,200 or more Syrians dead, with more than 10,000 refugees currently in Turkey.
A witness who spoke toReuters by telephone on Monday reported seeing 300 protesters in the Damascus suburb of Irbin chanting “no to dialogue with murderers,” while in Sunni districts of the coastal city of Latakia, protesters reportedly chanted “liar, liar” in a rebuke to Assad’s speech.
In Hama, where the regime of Assad’s father Hafez Assad brutally crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising, leaving thousands of civilians dead, demonstrators took to the streets chanting “damn your soul, Hafez,” Reuters reported.
Other post-speech demonstrations took place in the eastern city of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, the southern city of Deraa and other nearby towns, and at the Aleppo University campus, activists told Reuters.
Also Monday, European Union officials said they would widen sanctions on Syria in response to the regime’s violent crackdown of the uprising, with EU foreign ministers releasing a statement that read “The EU is actively preparing to expand its restrictive measures by additional designations with a view to achieving a fundamental change of policy by the Syrian leadership without delay.”
The US also upped the ante on Assad, with US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland telling reporters “Bashar Assad has been making promises to his people for weeks, for years. What’s important now is action, not words.”
She added “with regard to Bashar Assad’s allegation that what’s going on in his country is the result of foreign instigators – we’re just not buying it,” in a rebuke of Assad’s claim that “foreign conspirators” and “saboteurs” were responsible for the turmoil in Syria.
Assad’s speech, which stretched for well over an hour, had a defiant tone, and attempted to portray the protests as being the working of nefarious agents in the employ of unnamed foreign powers.
“I don’t think Syria has gone through a period in its history without a conspiracy that was linked to other interests. Conspiracies are like viruses, they increase and multiply and must be eradicated – but we can’t become immune to them,” Assad said Monday.
Assad portrayed his country as one that has historically been subject to repeated “conspiracies,” and blamed much of the unrest on “external media pressure, the use of mobile phones by saboteurs, and the misinformation propagated against the country.”
He also said that armed extremists are responsible for much of the bloodshed.
“This extremist mindset has tried to infiltrate into Syria and harm the unity of Syria.
This mindset has not changed; only the means and the faces have... This is the biggest obstacle to reform, we must contain this mindset and this extremist thinking.”
Assad claimed that conspirators are “getting paid to film pictures and send them to outside channels and pretend they’re from Syria,” as well as “using peaceful protests as cover for their sabotage and assassination operations.”
“They have hatred toward the people – they have the most sophisticated weapons and telecommunications systems,” Assad said.
He also accused his enemies of working to cause “mental sabotage” of the Syrian people, which is “causing people to disrespect the institutions and the nation.”
“Today we have young people – young children growing up with a lack of respect for institutions and hatred of the state. This will be reflected in the future, and the price will be high,” he said.
Assad repeatedly made promises of impending reforms that he will launch, but gave no details or a timetable. He also did not specify what role opposition groups would play in the future of Syria.
Assad called for the people of Syria to be patient for reforms to be implemented, saying “we can not just move in one jump.
What we are trying to do now, we are building the future – the future will be our history, and it will impact on the thinking of future generations.”
In addition to promises of reform, the president addressed outrage against corruption, saying “as for corruption, I have felt the need from the people that it should be fought against and put an end to.”
He also described the need to stop the nepotism that he said is rife in the state.
In an oft-repeated refrain in the speech, Assad touted what he said are plans for a “national dialogue” that will help Syria address the problems facing it as a nation.
“We embark on the launch of a national dialogue that will bring together people from all walks of life,” he said. “The whole future of Syria, if we want it to succeed, should be based on this national dialogue in which people from all walks of life will take part.”
Assad said the Syrian economy is “the biggest problem facing Syria,” adding that the state must work to restore trust in the country’s economy.
He also called on all refugees that have fled Syria to return home – specifically those around the northwestern Syria town of Jisr al- Shughour that has been the site of a violent army crackdown over the past two weeks.
“I call for all those who left their town or village to come home,” Assad said, also vowing that the state will not take vengeance upon them.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
He said he would ask the justice ministry to expand amnesty for arrested protesters.
Towards the end of his remarks, Assad repeated his statement that Syria “is not a football to be kicked around by other outside players,” and issued another call for reform.
“Some people want to reduce Syria to a tribal state, with closed borders. We need to reform our country from the inside and face the plots and plans of malevolent people, and we need to strengthen our domestic society against attacks against Syria. These attackers want to destroy society.”