Syria's Assad talks reforms in bid to keep power

By Zeina Karam

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Syrian citizens watch on television a Syria's President Bashar Assad delivers a speech, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, June 20, 2011. Syria's embattled president says "saboteurs" are trying to exploit legitimate demands for reform in the country. President Bashar Assad's speech Monday was only his third public address since the country's uprising began in March. What is happening today has nothing to do with reform, it has to do with vandalism," Assad told a crowd of supporters at Damascus University. "There can be no development without stability, and no reform through vandalism. ... We have to isolate the saboteurs."

Muzaffar Salman, Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria's embattled president said Monday his regime would consider political reforms, including ending his Baath Party's monopoly in politics, as he clings to power in the face of a growing, nationwide protest movement that refuses to die.

The opposition dismissed Bashar Assad's speech, saying it lacked any clear sign of a transition to true democracy. Activists said thousands of people took to the streets to protest in several cities, pressing on with a campaign to end the Assad family's 40-year authoritarian rule.

In a 70-minute, televised speech, only his third national address since the pro-democracy demonstrations began in March, Assad acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but said "saboteurs" were exploiting the situation. Athough he called for "national dialogue," he said, "There is no political solution with those who carry arms and kill."

Speaking to supporters at Damascus University, the president announced that a national dialogue would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to forming political parties other than the ruling Baath Party.

He said he expects a package of reforms by September or the end of the year at the latest. He also said parliamentary elections, scheduled for August, might be postponed if the reform committee decides to delay them.

But the speech signaled Assad's clear intent to try to ride out the wave of protests, showing the steely determination that has long kept his family and the Baathists in power. He played on fears that his downfall could usher in chaos.

"We want the people to back to reforms but we must isolate true reformers from saboteurs," he said.

Other besieged dictators across the Middle East — notably Egypt's Hosni Mubarak — have used the same argument as they sought to hold onto power during the Arab Spring, warning of chaos in their wake. In Syria, the warning has a special resonance, given the country's volatile mix of ethnic groups and minorities.

The Assad speech's vague timetable and few specifics — and lack of any clear move toward ending his family's political domination — left Syrian dissidents deeply dissatisfied.

"It did not give a vision about beginning a new period to start a transfer from a dictatorship into a national democratic regime with political pluralism," Hassan Abdul-Azim, a prominent opposition figure, told The Associated Press.

Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which tracks the protest movement, said the speech drove thousands of opposition supporters into the streets, calling for the downfall of the regime. That claim could not be independently confirmed immediately.

The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military, pro-regime gunmen and the country's other security forces to crush the protest movement that erupted in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

The deadly crackdown has only fueled the protests, in which tens of thousands have insisted they will accept nothing less than the regime's downfall.

Assad, 45, who inherited power in 2000 after his father's death, previously has made a series of overtures to try to ease the growing outrage, lifting the decades-old emergency laws that give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and granting Syrian nationality to thousands of Kurds, a long-ostracized minority. But the concessions did nothing to sap the movement's momentum, being dismissed as either symbolic or coming far too late.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said the speech was a "predictable disappointment."

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