Middle East

Syria unrest: Assad's speech falls on deaf ears

Bashar al-Assad (file)
Image caption President Assad urged Syrians to get involved in a "national dialogue"

President Bashar al-Assad's latest speech - his third since the unrest broke out in Syria just over three months ago - is unlikely to change the course of the country's history.

It was essentially an update on his second address on 16 April, in which he gave his new cabinet ministers their marching orders with the emphasis on political and economic reforms.

His new speech was greeted with immediate scepticism by activists and protesters, who took to the streets in several towns to declare that their "revolution" would continue.

Even on the evening before the address was delivered, demonstrators in the town of Idlib were chanting "It's written on the tanks, Bashar's promises are all lies!"

"There was nothing new," said one activist after the speech.

"Reforms are promised, but the tanks are not being pulled out and the protests are being suppressed as violently as ever. What's the point of reforms, when nothing changes on the ground?"

'Absolute conviction'

The Local Co-ordinating Committees, which speak for activists on the ground in all parts of the country, commented that Mr Assad was blind to the new realities in the country.

They also said he had ignored the crimes committed by his security forces - "the murder and mutilation of thousands, and the detention of demonstrators and activists, many of whose fate remains unknown".

If there was one tangible new gesture, it came with Mr Assad's statement that he had asked the justice ministry to expand the scope of the qualified amnesty issued on 31 May.

But for much of his speech, he dwelt on his "absolute conviction" about the reform process and the national dialogue that, he said, must underpin it.

He detailed the progress of previously-announced new draft laws on political parties, elections, local administration, the media, and measures to combat corruption, and proposed the formation of a new National Dialogue Authority to consult a wide range of opinion as input in that process and in advising on changes to the constitution - or even rewriting it.

Some of these projects have reached an advanced stage and could pass through parliament either before or after general elections in August.

Mr Assad said the slogan of the current phase was "national dialogue", though the opposition and activists involved in the uprising have rejected dialogue with the regime, so it may end up talking to the converted.

Credibility gap

The president's detailed and precise exposition of his reform plans might impress regime loyalists about the seriousness of the process, and indeed it would have seemed revolutionary just a few months ago.

In the same way, the announcement last week by the president's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, that he was giving up the profits from part of his business empire and turning to charity work would have been unthinkable a short time back, but was derided by the protest movement as an empty gesture - too little, too late.

On paper, Mr Assad's reform programme looks impressive, detailed and real.

But there is a huge credibility gap with the sceptical opposition and protest movement.

They see the programme as an academic exercise aimed at taking the steam out of domestic and external pressures without bringing what they want - transition to a true democracy and an end to more than 40 years of autocratic and often brutal rule by the Assad clan.