Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s much-anticipated speech Wednesday failed to deliver the reforms many Syrians sought. But can they transform their disappointment into widespread popular dissent?
It was his first public speech since deadly anti-government protests erupted two weeks ago, and all eyes were on Bashar al-Assad Wednesday, with news stations going live and experts on hand, ready to discourse on what some called “the biggest moment” of the Syrian president’s political life.
The heart of the speech, it was commonly agreed, would be the scrapping of Syria’s almost 50-year-old emergency law, a Draconian piece of legislation enforced by a terrifying security apparatus that has crushed dissent in the world’s last Baathist nation.
There was every reason to believe the emergency law would be immediately lifted. In press interviews following recent violent demonstrations, Assad’s media-savvy adviser Buthaina Shaaban told reporters the law would be lifted.
Shaaban however failed to provide a timetable, sparking speculation that the 45-year-old Syrian president would make the historical announcement during his Wednesday speech.
But in the end all such hopes came to naught. In his hour-long speech before a wildly worshipful parliament, Assad was long on blaming “conspirators” for the recent unrest and markedly short on offering reforms in any form.
Reporting from Damascus Wednesday, FRANCE 24’s Simon Barrye said there was a flurry of excitement on the streets of the Syrian capital at the start of the nationally televised speech, which was broadcast from loudspeakers on the walls of the old city. But, Barrye added, “Some faces looked glum at the end. The response was very low-key.”
In 2000, when he inherited the presidency from his father, Hafez, Assad had promised reforms during a brief period called the Damascus Spring. But those promises were short-lived, and 11 years later, the Syrian president’s Wednesday performance in parliament proved he has mastered the art of old-guard Syrian politicking.
“Many people - particularly the Syrians abroad and the opposition - are disappointed in the speech,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a leading Syria expert. “It was a hardline, nationalist speech. It pitted the foreign world against Syria. It was a speech his father could have made,” said Landis, referring to the former Syrian strongman - also known as “The Lion of Syria” - who ruled the country with an iron grip for 30 years.
The million-dollar question now is what happens next in this strategic Arab nation that holds the key to regional and international geopolitical interests.
Winds of change have ‘stalled’ in Syria
The recent violent demonstrations, which killed at least 60 people, according to international human rights groups, come in the wake of popular uprisings across the Arab world.
They were sparked in the impoverished southern city of Deraa, when protesters took to the streets after 15 youths were arrested for scrawling anti-government graffiti, according to the official Sanna news agency.
The deadly crackdown on demonstrations unleashed a familiar Middle Eastern cycle of fiery funerals, further protests and more crackdowns as protests spread to a few other cities, such as the costal city of Latakia and the Syrian capital.
But according to Landis, outside Deraa, the demonstrations failed to gather momentum, with protests rarely clocking more than hundreds of people – or a thousand at most.
Following Assad’s Wednesday speech - an address activists have called “shocking and disrespectful” - the opposition has called for a “day of rage” on Friday.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Wael al-Hafez, a Paris-based Syrian opposition figure, said the protests would resume. “The people will return to the streets, shirtless before the regime’s machine guns,” said al-Hafez. “The revolution has started. The wall of fear has fallen. The fight for freedom continues.”
Landis, however, is not so sure things will transpire quite that way.
“I don’t believe the opposition is going to be able to overwhelm the regime,” said Landis. “I believe the winds of change that have been sweeping the Arab world have stalled in Syria.”
Nobody doubts the Syrian state’s ability to crush dissent. In 1982, the current president’s father put down a Muslim Brotherhood revolt in the conservative central city of Hama by flattening the city and killing thousands.
But repression is not the only reason the world may not see a much-awaited Damascus Spring this time around.
In a multiethnic, multi-religious nation like Syria, there are deep-seated fears that ousting the Baathist regime could lead to civil war.
The reins of power in Syria have long been held by the Alawites, a Shiite group that comprises around 12 percent of the population but has had disproportional political clout.
While the fortunes of this minority group have risen ever since Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, seized power in 1970, the Assads – under the secular Baathist ideology – have protected other minority groups such as the Christians, the Kurds and the Druze.
There are fears among some Syrian minority groups that if the country’s Sunni majority came to power, Syria could become a repressive Islamic state.
“As a minority we know that under a regime that is also a minority at least there is a secular system we’re comfortable to live under,” an unnamed Christian resident of Damascus told the Washington Post earlier this week.
“Syrian people are seriously frightened by the possibility of civil war. They see what happened in [neighbouring] Iraq and Lebanon,” explained Landis.
‘C’est moi ou le déluge’
Over the past few days, analysts have been keenly watching the response of the Sunni elite, who form the cultural and economic backbone of Syria.
The signs from the Syrian parliament on Wednesday, though, have not been encouraging - with Sunni elites, including tribal elders - having joined the chorus of baroquely lavish praise and applause heard throughout Assad’s speech.
While the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt saw the military urge out longstanding dictators, there’s little sign so far that Syria’s all-powerful military is willing to back the popular movement.
“In many ways, the West believes the choice is between democracy and Bashar al-Assad,” said Landis. “But Bashar al-Assad today basically said it was a false choice. He was saying the choice is between me and civil war - c’est moi ou le déluge.”
Date created : 2011-03-30