Bashar al-Assad’s Speech and What’s Next for the Syrian Revolution
This morning, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave his third public speech since the revolution against his rule began 11 months ago. Unsurprisingly, the mustachioed dictator unleashed all of the most hackneyed themes from the Arab Tyrant’s Manual, emphasizing repeatedly over the course of his brutal 90 minute filibuster foreign interference in Syrian affairs should be blamed for the protracted political crisis.
The dull and monotonous Assad weaved indecipherably between blaming the West, “terrorists,” Gulf interference, the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel, Al Jazeera and Arab traitors for the injustice in his country which has seen more than 6000 people die since February. Assad brilliantly intertwined the same themes promulgated in the past by Saddam, Muammar, and Hosni into his marathon performance.
Users on Twitter commented that the members of the audience were being put to sleep by Bashar’s soporific invective, awakening only to rounds of applause that seemed to be issued by command.
His father Hafez would be proud.
Assad’s contradictions were numerous. His scapegoats were abundant. He pledged to reform but then said that “terrorists” must be crushed with an iron fist. He belittled the Arab League for “betraying” Syria, the “heart of the Arab League,” while still welcoming an inter-Arab resolution to the conflict. He blamed all of the West and Arab hypocrites for the conflict before asserting that Syria was secure and had “many friends.”
He used many common platitudes from the Arab dictator playbook—so much so that it seems entirely possible that Bashar’s father Hafez or the late Qaddafi could’ve written his speech. He numerously returned to the topic of the Palestinians, trying to take ownership of a cause he’s never genuinely championed while disparaging Israel. Ostensibly this tactic was an attempt to attract broad appeal from the rest of the Muslim world. Too bad that trick has been tried time and time again to no avail.
He spent much of the speech attempting to construct an Arab and Islamic legitimacy that he’s never truly had. Any pedigree he did have surely disappeared during the perpetual violence of the last year, at least in most people’s consideration. He spoke perplexing about “Arabism,” insinuating in ultra-nationalist terms that Syria was the paragon of Arab honor and culture and that the Arab League and critics of his regime were non-Arabs and Orientalists.
At one point, Assad praised Syria’s burgeoning olive harvested industry. Later, he ridiculed the opposition for destroying the world renowned Syrian education system’s attendance rates. He said that a government of national unity was not needed because Syria was not divided. It seemed that his accusations and logic were so ludicrous that no one, not even Assad himself, could possibly agree with it in earnest.
From his circuitous diatribes and steadfast commitment to his own innocence, it is now clearer than ever that reform is not an option in Syria. Activists reported that during Assad’s speech, a handful of protesters had been killed. Assad left no room for his own exit, making vague references to allowing more parties into the system and a constitutional referendum in the spring. So far the only registered party other than his own is another Baathist party. His ramblings validate the unfortunate fact that the Arab League observer mission served no other purpose other than to buy him more time.
He framed the crisis as being a race between “terrorists and reformists.” He claimed that he’s been opening up the country since he came to power in 2000. Most of the Syrian protesters would say that they are the ‘reformers,’ the government the ‘terrorists.’
So what does this all mean? Essentially, that nothing has changed. Given Assad’s bombastic pontifications, few are likely to have changed the perception they had of him this time yesterday. Assad won’t back down. Peaceful protesters will continue to die. And Assad’s doctrinaire commitment to his categorical rightness suggests that the violence will escalate.
It’s hard to see how the speech could have helped Mr. Assad. Similar speeches by his colleagues, Mubarak and Qaddafi, rallied more support for the opposition against them. The hope is that the actors who have the power to change the tide of the crisis will realize once and for all that Bashar has no motivation to negotiate or forge a peaceful, political solution to the crisis. In essence, he has said that the only way he will leave power is by taking the Qaddafi option.
An inter-Arab solution is undoubtedly the ideal option. We can hope against hope that the Arab League has seen Assad’s speech and rethought their hesitancy to act. We can hope against hope that the Foreign Ministries in Moscow and Beijing are alight with activity. Perhaps there will be renewed expediency in the Security Council.
A Kurdish activist, quoted in an article in Al Jazeera, put it well: “The president’s speech led Syria into a new era of bloodshed. From his words I understood that the coming days will be bloodier with even more security and military crackdown. I was gambling on a very small window of hope but now I can say there is no hope from the regime and no hope for Assad to make real reforms.”
Only minutes after Assad left the podium at Damascus University, Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, gave a press conference. Ghalioun, whose chairmanship of the opposition group had just been extended for another month, said in no uncertain terms that Assad was in denial.
The Paris-based activist said that Assad was attempting to divide Syrians, and that the faith the opposition had in the Arab League had evaporated. He vowed to bring the matter to the Security Council once again while the opposition persisted in popular resistance to the regime in cooperation with the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change and the Free Syrian Army, a group of defectors from the army.
Expect more turbulence, because there’s no end in sight.