x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

More of the same from Syria's leader

In politics, as in war, timing is everything. After yesterday’s rambling oration in Damascus it’s clear what eventuality Syrian president Bashar al Assad is preparing for.

In politics, as in war, timing is everything. After yesterday's rambling oration in Damascus it's clear what eventuality Syrian president Bashar al Assad is preparing for.

If Mr al Assad had spent 70 minutes in March mapping out a course of political reforms and a "national dialogue" Syria's stability might not be in question. But as Mr al Assad took the podium at Damascus University, expectations for real reform were already low. And by this measure the president did not fail to deliver.

Rattling off a litany of allegations against evil forces and anti-government "saboteurs", Mr al Assad sounded very much the disillusioned dictator demonstrators accuse him of being. The president offered no timetable for vague promises to reform to the economy, nor did he elaborate on plans to loosen the Baath party's grip on power.

And while he acknowledged the "historic" nature of the unrest gripping Syria, he seemed more interested in pointing fingers than taking blame. Case in point: he said he longed for the day when Syria's military could "return to its barracks", but first, action had to be taken against "vandals" and "outlaws".

Perhaps it's no coincidence that Mr al Assad timed his talk for a Monday, about as far from Friday afternoon prayers as possible.

As such, the true test of the regime's commitment to political overhauls will again come on Friday, as Syrians will no doubt return to the streets en masse. If Mr al Assad's military forces respond with violence, as they have repeatedly done, we'll know where he stands.

Yesterday's speech was the third for Mr al Assad since protests erupted earlier this spring. Since then the unrest has spread throughout the country, from Deraa in the south to Jisr al Shughour in the northwest. There, tanks and helicopter gunships have reminded Syrians what awaits those who continue to protest.

There may still be a chance to reverse course before Syria spirals out of control, but Mr al Assad's time is clearly running out.