Syria ruler says regime would consider reforms to keep power

BEIRUT — Syria’s embattled president said Monday his regime would consider political reforms, including ending his Baath Party’s monopoly in politics, as he clings to power in the face of a growing, nationwide protest movement that refuses to die.

The opposition dismissed Bashar Assad’s speech, saying it lacked any clear sign of a transition to true democracy. Activists said thousands of people took to the streets to protest in several cities, pressing on with a campaign to end the Assad family’s 40-year authoritarian rule.

In a 70-minute, televised speech, only his third national address since the pro-democracy demonstrations began in March, Assad acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but said “saboteurs” were exploiting the situation. Although he called for “national dialogue,” he said, “There is no political solution with those who carry arms and kill.”

Speaking to supporters at Damascus University, the president announced that a national dialogue would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to forming political parties other than the ruling Baath Party.

He said he expects a package of reforms by September or the end of the year at the latest. He also said parliamentary elections, scheduled for August, might be postponed if the reform committee decides to delay them.

But the speech signaled Assad’s clear intent to try to ride out the wave of protests, showing the steely determination that has long kept his family and the Baathists in power. He played on fears that his downfall could usher in chaos.

“We want the people to back to reforms but we must isolate true reformers from saboteurs,” he said.

Other besieged dictators across the Middle East — notably Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — have used the same argument as they sought to hold onto power during the Arab Spring, warning of chaos in their wake. In Syria, the warning has a special resonance, given the country’s volatile mix of ethnic groups and minorities.

The Assad speech’s vague timetable and few specifics — and lack of any clear move toward ending his family’s political domination — left Syrian dissidents deeply dissatisfied.

“It did not give a vision about beginning a new period to start a transfer from a dictatorship into a national democratic regime with political pluralism,” Hassan Abdul-Azim, a prominent opposition figure, told The Associated Press.

Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which tracks the protest movement, said the speech drove thousands of opposition supporters into the streets, calling for the downfall of the regime. That claim could not be independently confirmed immediately.

The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military, pro-regime gunmen and the country’s other security forces to crush the protest movement that erupted in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

The deadly crackdown has only fueled the protests, in which tens of thousands have insisted they will accept nothing less than the regime’s downfall.

Assad, 45, who inherited power in 2000 after his father’s death, previously has made a series of overtures to try to ease the growing outrage, lifting the decades-old emergency laws that give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and granting Syrian nationality to thousands of Kurds, a long-ostracized minority. But the concessions did nothing to sap the movement’s momentum, being dismissed as either symbolic or coming far too late.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said the speech was a “predictable disappointment.”

“The kind of language that Assad used suggests that he sees most of the opposition as being traitors and conspirators,” he told The Associated Press. “I think this was his final chance to show that he’s willing to take reforms seriously and, for the third time after three speeches, he made clear that he is not ready to commit to real democratic reform in Syria.”

Hamid said he expected protests to continue and international pressure to escalate. “The time line is not in (Assad’s) favor,” he said. “The question is, how long can Assad sustain the current situation?”

The Arab League, which had been largely silent on Syria, came out in strong support of the regime after Assad’s speech. Its deputy secretary-general, Ahmed bin Heli, an Algerian, said Syria was a “main factor of balance and stability in the region” and said the League rejects any foreign intervention in its affairs.

International pressure on the regime has been mounting steadily, as almost 11,000 Syrians have fled the crackdown into neighboring Turkey in an embarrassing spectacle for one of the most tightly controlled countries in the Middle East.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday said Syria’s leader must reform or go. Hague also said he hopes Turkey will play an influential role.

“I hope our Turkish colleagues will bring every possible pressure to bear on the Assad regime with a very clear message that they are losing legitimacy and that Assad should reform or step aside,” Hague said as he arrived in Luxembourg for a meeting of European Union foreign ministers.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, the EU condemned in the strongest terms the worsening violence in Syria and said it was preparing to expand sanctions against the regime. But it stopped short of announcing new penalties or of calling for Assad to step down. New sanctions would be an effort to bring about “a fundamental change in policy by the Syrian leadership without delay,” it said.

On Monday, the Syrian government tried to back up its claim that criminals were behind the unrest by taking journalists and foreign diplomats on a trip to a northern town where authorities say armed groups killed 120 security personnel two weeks ago.

Maj. Gen. Riad Haddad, head of the Syrian military’s political department, told journalists on the trip to Jisr al-Shughour that the military will continue to pursue gunmen “in every village where they are found, even near the Turkish border.”

In addition to the refugees in Turkey, some 5,000 people who fled their homes are camped out on the Syrian side of the border and face dwindling resources.

——

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Jisr al-Shughour, Syria, Bassem Mroue and Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut and Don Melvin in Luxembourg contributed to this report.

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