Opposition demonstrations occurred in several Syrian cities, including neighborhoods of Damascus, in an angry reaction to the 70-minute speech given by Bashar al-Assad at Damascus University. This [reaction] means that the message that al-Assad was trying to send, namely that he intends to lead a process of reform in Syria, did not reach the people, or they did not believe him.
This is the third speech [by the Syrian president] since the outbreak of protests demanding freedom and dignity and which have now entered their fourth month. These protests have been met with a bloody operation of suppression that has resulted in the death of an estimated 1,400 victims, whilst displacing tens of thousands of Syrian citizens.
This was not like a standard statement or speech in a time of crisis, which must be clear and concise and include procedures and projects that reassure the people. However, there are indications that there is now no going back [in Syria], and this is exactly what the opposition are saying, but with a different understanding. There was talk of national dialogue, which may lead to constitutional amendments or even a new constitution, and a parties’ law, which could eradicate the Baathist party’s grip on the state. Most importantly, al-Assad spoke directly about leading the reform process, and this was a statement that was primarily aimed at Washington, which had called on al-Assad to lead reform or step aside.
However these indications were shrouded in vagaries, particularly with regards to questions such as when and how [such reform would take place]? As well as who will take part in this national dialogue? Although al-Assad implicitly recognized that the protestors have legitimate demands, he divided the uprising into three components: those who have legitimate needs and demands for justice, those who follow an extremist ideology and who doubt the sincerity of the regime to carry out reform, and lastly al-Assad continued to talk about armed gangs, whilst ordinary Syrians stress that these gangs are part of the so-called Shabiha [gang] that is loyal to the regime.
The Syrian regime’s problem is that its principle apparatus remains captive of an ideology that the world has left behind and which dates back to the Cold War; a single-party state that is based on an ideology that has been eroded and which no longer has a real presence in the world. If we asked anyone between the ages of 20 and 40 today: What does Baathism mean, ideologically speaking? They would not know the answer, whilst the evidence on the ground indicates that this [Baathism] is nothing more than a group of interests and influences that continues to have a strong grip on the Syrian regime and security apparatus, as well as enjoying an alliance with interest groups in the business sector that benefit from the regime’s influence.
The Syrians began their uprising after being encouraged by what happened in Tunisia, then Egypt and Libya. At that time, the Syrian regime believed that the people in Egypt and Tunisia were having their say and welcoming change, but was unable to see the storm that would spread from there to Syria. The [Syrian] people have had enough of absolute autocracy. They want to enjoy dignity and freedom of expression like their neighbors in Turkey, a country that they have traveled to in recent years after relations between the two countries improved. The Syrian people have seen that there is another way to live and deal with political life [in Turkey].
The beginning of the political solution, or the starting point from which to address the lack of trust between the people and the regime in Syria, is the leadership there acknowledging that the Syrian people are having their say and have paid, or indeed are still courageously paying the price for this in blood. Thus change or reform must be clear and occur quickly and meet the desires of the people, particularly as the people’s slogans have now reached the stage of calling for the overthrowing of the regime.
So it does not seem like the uprising will end after the third speech. The Syrian protestors have raised the ceiling of their demands, whilst their lack of trust in the regime has only increased following the violent suppression of the demonstrators which has received widespread international condemnation. Even al-Assad himself was not confident that his speech would succeed in calming the situation in Syria, as he suggested that this crisis could last for months or even years.
This means that unless there is a surprising turn of events, we can expect a fourth speech from al-Assad. In this next speech, we hope that al-Assad can recognize that the Syrians have also had their say.