DAMASCUS // Bashar Al Assad offered Syrians a new constitution yesterday in a speech meant to defuse a national uprising, but ignored demands for immediate democratic reforms and an end to violence, and said his forces would continue to hunt down "saboteurs".
It was the Syrian leader's third public address since an anti-regime uprising began in March, and activists said it was as ineffective as the other two in ending the nation's crisis.
They denounced the speech as "empty promises", and demonstrations broke out in some parts of the country, including a Damascus suburb, immediately after it ended.
In his hour-long televised address, the 45-year-old president said he had met demonstrators and recognised they had legitimate grievances, seeking to draw a line between activists and what he called a "minority" of violent criminals and Islamist terrorists with "medieval" attitudes.
Speaking to a select audience at Damascus University at noon, he said many demands for political reforms had already been fulfilled and more were planned, including new laws governing political parties, local elections and the media.
He said a committee for national dialogue would meet in the next few days to decide on a mechanism for eventual constitutional reform.
"A review of the constitution will be mandatory - some of its articles must be revised or a new constitution drafted to keep up with the changes of the last four decades," Mr Al Assad said.
He said his own preference was that an entirely new constitution be drawn up, but it would be for the national dialogue committee to make that recommendation.
That appeared to suggest Article 8, which guarantees the ruling Baath Party's singular right to hold power, could be scrapped, although such a move was not assured. There was also no mention of a transition to democracy through free and fair elections or any commitment to allow a free press.
Guarantees on these issues have been demanded by opposition activists who say Syria's autocratic system of governance must end.
Mr Al Assad said parliamentary elections would be held by August, "if they are not postponed". He said his reform package should be completed by September.
Dissidents have demanded an immediate end to the violent crackdown on protesters and that all political prisoners be released. Many activists remain in detention despite a recent presidential amnesty.
Mr Al Assad said he would study the matter of prisoner releases, but struck a defiant tone over the use of military forces to put down the uprising.
He said he had been shocked to learn there were 64,000 convicted criminals - enough, he said, to man a complete army - roaming the country.
He said some of these criminals had participated in heinous massacres and torture of members of the security forces.
Mr Al Assad also attacked his critics for working against his reform agenda as part of a foreign-backed conspiracy.
"What is happening today isn't related to reform and development. It is mere vandalism," he said of the uprising. He insisted there could be "no political solution with those who carry guns and kill people".
"Has mayhem brought more job opportunities? Has it improved the general conditions? Has it improved security?" said Mr Al Assad. "There is no reform amid vandalism."
Rights groups claim security units have been involved in widespread killings, including of children, and the abuse of prisoners.
More than 1,400 civilians and about 300 security personnel have been killed since the uprising began, according to rights monitors.
The opposition insists a large number of the security casualties have come from fighting between units loyal to the regime and soldiers who refused to fire on civilians.
During yesterday's speech, which lasted more than an hour, Mr Al Assad acknowledged that blood had been spilt on both sides, civilian and military, but did not give a number of casualties. He also accepted that his sincerity in delivering reforms had been questioned. Yet he insisted that everyone in the country, including his ruling circle, had a firm conviction about the need for change.
"I have had not met a single person opposing reform. Each and every person is enthusiastic about reform," he said.
Dissidents said the speech was a "disappointment, but not a surprise". They said it failed to map out a transition from autocracy or acknowledge the true scale of the problems in the country, although Mr Al Assad did sound a warning about a possible economic collapse.
"This is the same thing we have heard before: talk of committees drawing up draft laws and vague suggestions one thing or another might happen at some stage in the future," said one opposition activist. "No one believes these empty promises any more. It is clear the regime is incapable of reform. It is playing for time."
The activist said protesters would denounce the speech by taking to the streets in larger numbers.
An independent political analyst in Damascus said the speech would not steer the country out of its bloody stalemate. In fact, he said it would make the current crisis worse.
"Decisive steps and a strong reform agenda were needed, but what we heard were many 'ifs' and 'buts' that will not address the situation," the analyst said. "There was nothing concrete, nothing tangible in there. We were given a review of the situation but no actions to get us out of it. That's a problem. I think we will now see more bloodshed."
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, dismissed the speech as "disappointing and unconvincing".
A wavering, pro-reform supporter of the president welcomed the contents of the speech, but said it may have come too late.
"The president put everything in the hands of the national dialogue committee, which is good," he said. "I hope we have the time to let them make recommendations and for real reforms to come but now there are questions of credibility: will the people wait, will they believe these promises?"