x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Assad's vow to fight dashes hopes of fast end to Syrian war

Touted 'comprehensive solution' to the Syrian crisis fails to eventuate, destroying hopes that a political breakthrough might be in the offing. Phil Sands reports from Damascus

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad delivered his speech in front of a Syrian flag made of pictures of people allegedly killed during the uprising. “They (his opponents) are the enemies of the people and the enemies of God. The enemies of God will go to hell,” he said.
Syrian president Bashar Al Assad delivered his speech in front of a Syrian flag made of pictures of people allegedly killed during the uprising. “They (his opponents) are the enemies of the people and the enemies of God. The enemies of God will go to hell,” he said.

Damascus // Syrian president Bashar Al Assad yesterday dismissed the Arab Spring as nothing more than "soap bubbles" and vowed to fight on against those trying to overthrow his regime, calling his opponents extremists, killers and criminals with whom negotiation was impossible.

In an hour-long speech, delivered to an invited audience of loyalists at the heavily defended and lavish Damascus opera hall, he said the uprising against him and 42 years of rule by the Assad family, was a "fake revolution" and a war waged by foreign powers.

"They are the enemies of the people and the enemies of God. The enemies of God will go to hell," a defiant and confident Mr Al Assad told the crowd, and - via live television broadcast - the nation.

He added: "We will not be afraid of their bullets, because we are in the right, we are, were and always will be with right and with justice."

In advance, his first major address since June had been billed as outlining a comprehensive solution to the Syrian crisis. It came after a flurry of international diplomacy involving Russia, UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and the US.

But any lingering expectations that a political breakthrough might be in the offing - or even a more subtle change of tone towards conciliation - were dashed.

Those wanting major political reforms, or just desperate for an end to the tidal wave of violence that the UN says has killed more than 60,000 people since March 2011, saw no cause for optimism.

"He wants things to go back as they were, 'Syria for the Assads', but that cannot happen now," said a middle class woman, living in the southern suburbs of Damascus.

She missed the opening 20 minutes of the speech because of an electricity cut. As soon as the presidential address had finished, an artillery bombardment on the hard-hit southern neighbourhoods resumed, she said.

"Listening to the speech, it was as if Assad doesn't know what's happening in the streets, or how we are living now," she said.

In the address, after acknowledging the suffering afflicting his country, Mr Al Assad sketched out his plan to end it in broad strokes.

It required the rebels to put down their weapons as an immediate first step. Only then would military operations by his armed forces cease, with his army reserving the right to shoot if threatened.

Next, Syria's borders would need to be secured and then a new political process could begin. That new programme presented by Mr Al Assad yesterday closely matched one he has already implemented, including a series of national dialogues and conventions, referenda, a new "broadened" government, a new constitution and parliamentary elections.

Once that had been completed, there could be an amnesty for prisoners, reconstruction of the country and, "everybody will forgive everybody", he said.

There was no mention of his own status as president, perhaps the single most important issue raised by the opposition.

Crucially, the speech also posed major questions over the viability of the UN special envoy's efforts to forge a diplomatic solution. Central to Mr Brahimi's plans, and an earlier peace drive by his predecessor, Kofi Annan, have been the notion of "transition".

The UN, and even Syria's major supporter Russia, have referred to it as a move from Syria's current authoritarian system of government, dominated by the security services and an all-powerful president, to democracy.

It was made clear yesterday that Mr Al Assad has a different understanding of what that transition represents and entails.

"There is a vague article that says the "transitional" period," he said. "First we question, transition from what point to what point. Why should we transition from a country that is independent and free, from a sovereign state to a country that is stateless and unstable…..the only transitional period should be from instability to stability, the natural transition from a worse situation to a better situation."

Mr Al Assad's supporters, some of them assembled at the opera house, responded to the speech with fervent enthusiasm, cheering when he praised the army and promised that there would be no let up in the fight as long as a single "terrorist" remained in the country.

At various points, the audience stood and, cheering, shouted slogans, including, "God, Syria, Bashar", "May God preserve the army", "Shabiha forever, for your eyes Assad" and "Abu Hafez".

The terms Shabiha refers to a pro-regime militia that the authorities deny exists. A pejorative, and fear-inducing term when used by members of the opposition, it is a signal of unflinching loyalty when invoked by Mr Al Assad's supporters.

An independent political analyst in Damascus, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the speech would do nothing to halt Syria's descent into a devastating civil war, and showed there had been no change in the thought process of the regime since the uprising began.

"It was a speech designed for Assad's people, it was a rallying call to his supporters," the analyst said. "He is saying, I'm in control, we're in control and we're not going anywhere without a fight, don't worry".

"Really, there is nothing new in any of it, it's much the same as the speech Assad gave in January last year, but then 5,000 people had been killed. The difference now is that the death toll is much, much higher and the situation even more dangerous for the country and the region."

psands@thenational.ae