Ian Black, Middle East editor
The Guardian, Sunday 6 January 2013
Rebels say Syrian president offered no meaningful concessions in his first public speech in seven months
Syria’s opposition and its international backers have rejected Bashar al-Assad’s latest initiative to end violence, insisting that he offered no meaningful concessions after 21 months of bloodshed and must surrender power at once.
Hopes for a breakthrough in the crisis were dashed after an hour-long speech in Damascus in which the Syrian president called for “a war to defend the nation” against “terrorist” violence and urged foreign countries to stop supporting his enemies – while offering a national dialogue and a constitutional referendum.
Assad proposed what he called a “comprehensive plan” that included an “expanded government”. But there was no sign he was prepared to step down as the first stage of a political transition – a demand of all opposition groups. “I will go one day, but the country remains,” he pledged.
The Syrian leader referred repeatedly to “plots” against his country and the role of al-Qaida, long portrayed as the leading element in what began as a popular uprising in March 2011. Syria was not facing a revolution but a “gang of criminals” and “western puppets”, he said.
“We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word,” the president told cheering supporters. “This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation.”
The speech from the stage of the Damascus Opera House in the heart of the capital was punctuated by thunderous applause and loyalist chants from what was certainly a carefully selected audience. The city was described as being under a security lockdown before the event. Internet services were disconnected.
But it was hard to see how his latest address – the first in seven months – offered even a faint glimmer of hope of way out of the bloody impasse between the regime and rebels in a conflict which the UN said last week had claimed 60,000 lives.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said the closely watched address marked an end to diplomatic efforts led by the UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi. “The appropriate response is to continue to resist this unacceptable regime and for the Free Syrian Army to continue its work in liberating Syria until every inch of land is free,” said George Sabra, its deputy president.