Syrian president attacks 'conspiracy' against regime
BASHAR AL-ASSAD, the Syrian president, defied Western demands to institute reform or stand down as he broke a two-month silence yesterday to attack a vast "conspiracy" against his regime.
Syrian protesters greeted the speech by pouring on to the streets once more to demand his resignation. In a demonstration that the president's critics had not been placated, the European Union said it was preparing to expand sanctions against the Syrian regime.
Facing an unprecedented challenge to his 11-year rule, Mr Assad attempted to sound more conciliatory than in his two previous public appearances since the eruption of popular protests in March.
He acknowledged for the first time that many protesters had legitimate grievances, and admitting that widespread corruption, nepotism and lack of accountability had corroded public trust in his regime.
But for the most part, Mr Assad was as uncompromising as ever. He claimed the unrest was being fomented by an alliance of conspirators and saboteurs intent on destroying Syria's delicate sectarian fabric.
Among the plotters, he said, were 64,000 "fugitives" wanted by the courts and an unspecified number of Islamic fundamentalists, armed with sophisticated weapons intent on bringing about "a new dark age" in the country.
"A mindset of extremist thinking had tried to infiltrate Syria," he said. "It destroys in the name of religion and spreads violence in the name of freedom. What is happening today has nothing to do with development or reform. What is happening today is sabotage."
The claims of an Islamist plot and the implicit threat of more arrests and continued military action will chill protesters. The president's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, used similar language to justify the deaths of tens of thousands of people during the crushing of an uprising in the 1980s.
About 1,300 protesters are thought to have been killed in the past three months, with more than 10,000 arrested.
Mr Assad insisted he would never negotiate with "gunmen" and appeared to prepare his people for protracted bloodshed by warning that the unrest could continue for months.
Where there were concessions, they were mostly vague pledges that previous promises of reform would be addressed with greater urgency.
Mr Assad announced a "national dialogue" that would seek to examine the constitution with a view to lifting the ruling Ba'ath party's political monopoly. But tellingly, the examination is only to begin after parliamentary elections, scheduled for August.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague described Mr Assad's speech as "disappointing and unconvincing".
Earlier, Mr Hague made his strongest intervention in the Syrian crisis yet by calling on Mr Assad to "reform or step aside". (© Daily Telegraph, London)