Assad stuns critics with threats to protesters
Published 31/03/2011 | 05:00
SYRIA'S president paved the way for mass retribution against his own people yesterday when he dismissed protesters as "conspirators" in the pay of foreign powers.
Bashar al-Assad's defiance, in his first television appearance since anti-government unrest began a fortnight ago, stunned his critics.
They had been led to expect that the president would announce significant reforms, including the abolition of emergency laws in force since 1963.
Instead, their leader delivered a speech almost entirely devoid of conciliatory gestures and carrying a strongly hinted threat.
Within hours, there were reports of gunfire in Damascus, the capital, and fresh protests in the southern city of Deraa, where scores of demonstrators were killed last week.
There were also renewed calls on social networking websites for people to take to the streets, setting the stage for a potentially bloody showdown with the security forces after mosque services on Friday.
For a speech billed as the most important of his 11-year presidency, Mr Assad's televised address to parliament was surprisingly short.
Dismissing demonstrations in Deraa, the port city of Latakia, and other parts of the country as the work of a small group of "conspirators", he hinted that Israel was behind the unrest in an attempt to stir up sectarian chaos.
But Mr Assad also issued a warning to any protesters who dared return to the streets. "We don't seek battles," he said. "But if a battle is imposed on us today, we welcome it."
However, it was far from clear that his threat would succeed.
"He talked to us like the father talks to his children," said one Damascus resident. "But what Deraa and Latakia and elsewhere have shown is that we have a voice.
"This speech will not silence us."
For days Mr Assad's aides had predicted that he would make good on a pledge, communicated through a spokesman last week, to offer substantial reforms and lift the state of emergency that the Ba'athist regime imposed when it came to power.
But the speech was twice postponed, leading to speculation of a power struggle in the ruling family.
When it came, Mr Assad's address contained only the vaguest mention of eventual reforms, suggesting that hardliners led by his brother Maher, the head of the presidential guard, are now in the ascendancy. (© Daily Telegraph, London)