President Assad is mobbed by supporters after his Sunday speech
President Assad spoke for almost an hour on Sunday, often in long, almost-rambling sentences. However, the thousands of words can be reduced to four.
I am not leaving.
On Saturday, there were claims that Assad would present a clear plan for transition, in which he would step down by 2014. This never emerged. Although the President did put out a supposed blueprint for dialogue and reconciliation --- to be honest, it was so garbled that I lost track of Assad's numbers for his points, let alone their purported substance --- this was for no more than show. Assad effectively admitted this when he said the plan was not for those "who had betrayed Syria", ruling out negotiations with any opposition apart from the limited range of groups recognised by the regime inside the country.
No, this was a speech of defiance. The enthusiastic, adoring audience produced its loudest cheers and chants for the declarations of Syria's defence of its sovereignty against menacing foreign powers and Assad's leadership, with tributes to the army and security forces, of the fight against "terrorists". The President was so dedicated to the message --- or self-deluding, according to your perspective --- that he even turned a defeat into victory over those evil foes. In one of the few specific passages, he paid tribute to the "brave men" of Ras al-Ain, a town near the Turkish border, for their stand against Ankara-backed armed groups. Assad never mentioned that any stand ended in defeat and regime withdrawal last autumn, with the most significant clashes taking place between Free Syrian Army forces and Kurdish groups.
So was there any achievement in the speech yesterday? Yes, in a perverse way. President Assad probably ended the mission of United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Although there may be token efforts, Brahimi's hope for a meeting between the regime and the opposition is dead, without a significant shift in the military situation which forces one side to cry "Uncle!".
The reaction of the main opposition blocs, both political and military, can already be scripted. Indeed, within minutes of the speech, spokespersons for the National Coalition were dismissing it as a "waste of time". So, while the fighting re-surges, political attention turns to outside actors. Will Russia, thanks along with China and Iran yesterday by Assad, continue with its insistence that Assad cannot be told to step down --- stunting, if not killing off, the recent US-Russian consideration of pressure on Damascus? Will Washington and European partners now step up support of the insurgency, beyond the covert supply of some arms and the overt postures of "humanitarian aid"?