Assad's 'peace' plan 'detached from reality'
The State Department on Sunday derided Syrian President Bashar Assad's latest initiative to end the 21 months of violence as “detached from reality.”
Although Assad's speech was billed as the introduction of a new peace plan, he offered no concessions and even appeared to harden many of his positions, Reuters reported. He rallied Syrians for “a war to defend the nation” and disparaged the prospect of negotiations.
“We do not reject political dialogue ... but with whom should we hold a dialogue? With extremists who don't believe in any language but killing and terrorism?” Assad asked supporters who packed Damascus Opera House for his first speech since June.
The speech was punctuated by thunderous applause and loyalist chants from a carefully selected audience, the London-based Guardian newspaper reported. The city was described as being under a security lockdown before the event, and Internet services were disconnected.
Appearing pale and weary but defiant, Assad outlined suggestions for what he called a period of “transition,” in which a new government would be formed, a “national pact” would be drafted and a referendum would be held.
But at the same time he offered no hint that he is willing to cede power, and he made it clear that he was not prepared to negotiate either with the exiled Syrian opposition factions or the rebels fighting on the ground, whom he mocked as Islamic radicals supportive of al-Qaida and Western “puppets.”
“They are the enemies of God, and they will go to hell,” he said of the rebels.
The most lasting image from Assad's appearance may have been caught moments after his speech, the BBC reported. Dozens of supporters surged toward the president — conjuring up what could happen if the opposition got to him. The president waved and struggled to leave the stage. For Syria's opposition, that is the entire problem.
Louay Safi, a member of the umbrella National Coalition opposition group, called the speech a “waste of time.”
“He said nothing constructive,” Safi told the al-Jazeera English television network.
In Washington, state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland agreed, characterizing the speech as “yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power.”
She said Assad's initiative “is detached from reality” and repeated calls for him to leave office.
Assad's speech was “beyond hypocritical,” Britain's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, commented on Twitter. “Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one.”
More than 60,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011.
Even Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsy, put more pressure on Assad on Sunday, telling CNN that he supported calls for the Syrian leader to be tried for war crimes.
“The Syrian people ... will decide what they want to do to those who committed crimes against them,” Morsy told Wolf Blitzer in Cairo.
Morsy, too, repeated his previous calls for Assad to leave power.
The timing of the speech was significant. Assad's army has lost control over a large swath of territory in the north and east of the country. The rebels have steadily been making small but significant military gains that have clearly put pressure on the regime and on Syria's key allies to intensify efforts to find a negotiated settlement.
In his speech, Assad thanked Russia, China and Iran for supporting Syria in the face of hostility from the United States, Britain and France.
“Syria is impervious to collapse and the Syrian people impervious to humiliation,” he concluded. “We will always be like that. Hand in hand we will move ahead, taking Syria to a brighter and stronger future.”
The Washington Post and The Associated Press contributed to this report.