Crackdown defended by Syria leader

Assad refuses to resign, won’t talk with rebels

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks to a cheering, chanting crowd at the Opera House in central Damascus. He offered a new peace plan during Sunday’s address.
Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks to a cheering, chanting crowd at the Opera House in central Damascus. He offered a new peace plan during Sunday’s address.

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad used his first public address in six months to justify his harsh crackdown, rally his supporters to fight against his opponents and inform on them — and leave in tatters recent efforts toward a political resolution to the country’s bloody civil war.

Assad offered what he called a peace plan, including a new cabinet, a new constitution to replace the one adopted just last year in a widely dismissed reform package, and talks with officially tolerated opposition groups.

But he ruled out any talks with the armed Syrian opposition and ignored its demands that he step down, making his proposal a nonstarter for most of his foes.

He sounded much as he did at the start of the uprising 21 months ago, dictating which opposition groups were worthy and labeling the rest terrorists and traitors.

Assad did not acknowledge that the rebels now control large parts of the country, that many ordinary Syrians still demand change during a crackdown that has laid waste to neighborhoods and killed tens of thousands, or that allies such as Russia have signaled that he might be unable to defeat the insurgency.

He even dismissed as foreign interference the mediation efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi. During a visit to Damascus Dec. 24, the United Nations envoy and the senior Algerian diplomat warned of national disintegration if the two sides did not negotiate a solution.

“Everyone who comes to Syria knows that Syria accepts advice but not orders,” Assad told a cheering, chanting crowd at the Damascus Opera House.

Residents said security forces were deployed heavily starting the night before.

“He doesn’t seem to have moved an inch since summer 2011,” said Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, noting that he gave “barely the slightest nod” to Mr. Brahimi’s proposals.

After days of hints that Assad might be ready to negotiate, his defiant speech on Sunday promised trouble for friends and enemies.

Russia may find it harder to stave off international action against Syria, which it has done by using its veto at the U.N. Security Council, as the chances for a political solution seem to recede. And Assad’s defiance may prompt Mr. Brahimi to stop his mission.

That would present the “Friends of Syria,” the group of nations supporting the opposition — the United States and its Western allies, Turkey, and some Arab countries — with an unpalatable choice: intervene more aggressively or risk allowing the conflict to drag on indefinitely.

“Assad is not letting the Friends of Syria off the hook by making it easy for them to declare victory and close the Syria file,” Mr. Sayigh said. “Now what will they do?”

In his roughly hourlong speech, Assad sketched out a plan for peace.

In phase one, he called for a freeze in the fighting and an end to foreign aid to anti-government forces. If those conditions were met, Assad said, he would order his forces to halt military operations and convene a national conference.

Then, under a transitional government, the draft of a new constitution would be put to a national referendum. In a final phase, another government would be formed and prisoners would be freed.

But at the same time he offered no hint that he is willing to cede power, and at no point did he suggest that his reform package was intended to lead to more democratic governance.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman dismissed Assad’s speech as a meaningless attempt to retain power and urged him to step down.

His speech “is yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people’s goal of a political transition,” State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said.

“His initiative is detached from reality, undermines the efforts of Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, and would only allow the regime to further perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people,” she added.

The United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 people have died in the civil war, which began as a peaceful protest movement and turned into an armed struggle after security forces fired on demonstrators.

Rebels have made gains in the north and east and in the Damascus suburbs, but the government has pushed back with deadly air and artillery strikes and appears to be confident that it can hold the capital.

Neither side appears ready to give up the prospect of military victory, though analysts say neither side is close to achieving it.

Assad’s defiant stance on Sunday “means we’re in for a long fight,” said Joshua Landis, a scholar on Syria and Assad’s minority sect, the Alawites, at the University of Oklahoma. “There is no good ending to this. Assad believes he is winning.”

Before the speech, Lebanese media outlets close to the Syrian government reported, citing unnamed sources, that Assad would be much more conciliatory, offering to share some power with the armed opposition. But that view did not make it into the speech he delivered.

Instead, he repeated his longstanding assertions that the movement against him was driven by “murderous criminals” and terrorists financed by rivals such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia with U.S. blessing.

“Who should we negotiate with — terrorists?” Assad said. “We will negotiate with their masters.”

The main opposition body, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, issued a statement calling the speech “a pre-emptive strike against both Arab and international diplomatic solutions.”

There was little immediate reaction in Russia, where the speech was made on the eve of today’s Orthodox celebration of Christmas.

But Boris Dolgov of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Eastern Studies said the speech reflected a new push by Russia and other nations to resolve the crisis.

Mr. Dolgov told the Voice of Russia radio station that Assad was correct to assert in his speech that the first step toward a resolution of the civil war must be the cessation of aid for armed rebel groups, adding that the situation was “complex, but not a dead end.”

In Midan, a contested neighborhood of southern Damascus, a shopkeeper said that Assad’s speech had dashed his hopes that the president would end the conflict.

“He divided Syrians in two camps, one with him who are patriots and one against him who are criminals, terrorists, and radicals,” said the man, who gave only a nickname, Abu Omar, for safety reasons. “He doesn’t see Syrians who are patriots but don’t like him, and want to have another president in democratic, fair elections.”

Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years, said Sunday that he was open to dialogue with “those who have not sold Syria to foreigners,” most likely a reference to tolerated opposition groups that reject armed revolution, such the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change.

But his speech appeared unlikely to satisfy even those opponents, because it made no apology for the arrests of peaceful activists or for airstrikes that have destroyed neighborhoods.

Nor did he acknowledge that his opponents sought anything but ruin for Syria.

“They killed the intellectuals in order to inflict ignorance on us,” Assad said of his opponents. “They deprived children from school in order to bring the country backward.”

Some armed rebel groups have used techniques that randomly target civilians, such as car bombs, and foreign fighters are among the rebels.

But most of the movement is made up of Syrians who took up arms during the uprising or defected from the armed forces.

Assad thanked military officers and conscripts in the speech and vowed to stay by their side, seeking to dispel speculation that he would flee the country.

The audience of government officials and university students at the opera house chanted, “With our souls, with our blood, we defend you, Assad,” and vowed to be his “shabiha,” a term that has come to mean progovernment militias that have attacked demonstrators.

As he finished, scores of people rushed frantically to greet him, and his bodyguards formed a phalanx to escort Assad through the crowd.