Syria's president has called for national mobilization to fight against rebels he says are "al-Qaida terrorists." Bashar al-Assad said on January 6 in his first speech in months that there is "no joy while security and stability are absent" on Syrian streets.
"I will go one day, but the country remains," said Assad, in his hour-long speech in which he referred repeatedly to plots against Syria and the role of al-Qaeda. The terrorist network has long been suspected as a leading element in the rebellion that began in March 2011. Syria was not facing a revolution but a "gang of criminals", said Assad. "We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word," the president told cheering supporters. "This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation."
This was Assad's first public speech since June 2012. In his last public appearance, in November 2012, he told Russian television that he would live and die in his native land.
Assad, who spoke at the opera house in central Damascus, said Syrian forces are fighting groups of "murderous criminals" funded from abroad. Appearing confident and poised, he proposed a national reconciliation conference and new constitution, but said his government had not yet found any partner for negotiations.
Setting conditions, Assad said that as a first step towards putting down his arms he wants an end to foreign financing of rebels. However, he reserved the right to fight terrorism - which might include almost all of his opponents. A second step would be dialogue with groups Assad finds acceptable, followed by a new constitution approved by a referendum and then a coalition government. No mention was made of holding elections before the end of Assad's current term of office in 2014.
In this speech, Assad gave evidence that he will push back hard against diplomatic efforts to foster a compromise with the rebels or ease his departure from the country. “Everyone who comes to Syria knows that Syria accepts advice but not orders,” said Assad. This came just one week after Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, a United Nations envoy, visited Damascus in the hope of negotiating a settlement. “Who should we negotiate with — terrorists?” Mr. Assad said. “We will negotiate with their masters.” The president's speech was frequently interrupted by chants of "with our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you."
Assad ruled out talks with the armed rebels and pointedly ignored their demand that he leave office. Also ignoring the grievances of the Syrian people, Assad used much of his speech to justify his persecution of the armed opposition and critics. Assad's military has been accused of systematic shelling of civilian populations, as well as targetted killings.
Syria's security forces took no changes with Assad's security. Armored units and infantry arrived in Damascus' Umayyad Square which faces the Damascus Opera House in the capital’s central Umayyad Square — where residents said security forces had been deployed the night before. In his speech, he repeated his longstanding assertions that the movement against him was driven by “murderous criminals” and foreign-financed terrorists, while appearing to show push-back towards international diplomatic efforts intended to produce a compromise.
UN estimates set the butcher's bill for the Syrian conflict at 60,000 dead. The conflict began as a peaceful demonstration of grievances during the so-called Arab Spring that devolved into an armed conflict. Foreign combatants, some of whom are linked to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, have joined the fray in which rebels have been joined by turncoat Syrian military and bolstered by captured weapons. International concern has only increased over the course of the conflict because of the chemical weapons in the possession of the Assad regime. While the government has vowed that it would not turn chemical weapons against the Syrian people, there have been reports of deaths and injuries attributable to these weapons. Russia, for its part, continues to support the Syrian regime.
Insurgents have made significant gains in the northern and eastern quadrants of Syria. Even so, Assad's Russian-equipped military is pushing back with destructive air assaults and artillery barrages. The government appears confident that it can hold essential Damascus and the rebels also appear to be confident of a win.
Assad's opponents do not appear to have any confidence in negotiating with the dictator. Even so, Assad said in his January 6 speech that he is willing to talk with “those who have not betrayed Syria.” This has been taken to be a reference to unarmed opposition groups, such as the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change, which China and Russia proposed as peace brokers.
But Assad made no apology nor offered any amends for the arrests and killings of peace activists nor for destructive airstrikes that have flattened whole neighborhoods and killed fellow Syrians. Christian Syrians, who were largely tolerated during the 42 years of dictatorship under Assad and his father, cite concerns over the increasingly Islamist and intolerant tone of Assad's opponents. Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, terrorist groupings that are hardly tolerant of non-Muslims, are increasingly evident among the rebels, thereby generating fears that Syria could become a Taliban-type state should Assad fall.
Touching upon Taliban-like tactics of the opposition, Assad declared, “They killed the intellectuals in order to afflict ignorance on us.” Said Assad, “They attacked the infrastructure in order to make our life difficult, they deprived children from school in order to bring the country backward,” and thus failing to acknowledge that the rebellion is anything more than a foreign plot. Some of Assad's opponents have used common terrorist techniques, such as car-bombs directed at randomly selected civilian targets.
Warming to his theme, Assad added, “The enemies of the people are the enemies of God, and the enemies of God will burn in hell.” Sounding like the Taliban himself, Assad framed the rebellion as an attack by the West in league with exiled leaders. The foreign opponents would thus include the United States, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The US, for its part, has offered what has been termed nonlethal support in addition to recognizing the opposition.
Some of Assad's opponents were members of his military, some of whom took weapons with them. Assad thanked loyal officers and troops, vowing to remain in the country in what was understood as an effort to quell rumors that he plans to escape. The crowd at the Opera House chanted, “With our souls, with our blood, we defend you, Assad,” while vowing that they would continue to serve as his “shabiha” - pro-government mobs that attack opposition demonstrators. Dozens of effusive members of the audiende came towards the dais in an effort to congratulate their leader. Security protected Assad who was then slowly escorted through the jubilant crowd.
That Assad's speech was held in an opera house did not escape some of the regime's critics. For example, Rami Khouri - the editor of the Lebanon-based Daily Star newspaper, tweeted, “It was operatic in its otherworldly fantasy, unrelated to realities outside the building.” Rami Khouri, the editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, wrote on Twitter.
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.