In only his third public speech since Syria's uprising erupted in March, President Bashar al-Assad declared on Monday that "saboteurs" were hijacking the Syrian people's legitimate demands for political reform, urged Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey to return home, and called for a "national dialogue" and a committee to consider constitutional amendments, including one that would permit political parties other than his ruling Baath Party (Assad has already lifted the country's emergency law for arbitrary detention, in theory at least, and granted Syrian nationality to the Kurdish minority). How are analysts distilling Assad's 70-minute speech?
- Hard Line: Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell points to Assad's statement that "there can be no development without stability, and no reform through vandalism." That means the "crackdown will continue," he writes.
- Softer Tone: The BBC's Lina Sinjab points out that Assad acknowledged, for the first time, "the lawful rights of protesters" and the fact that civilians have been killed alongside security forces. Similarly, Anthony Shadid at The New York Times notes that Assad finally admitted the "depth of what stands as the gravest challenge to his 11 years in power." For weeks, Shadid adds, the regime's message has been "either us or chaos." On Monday, however, Assad tweaked the message, offering "himself as the best means to bring about a change in one of the region's most authoritarian states."
- Familiar Themes: The Guardian's Ian Black doesn't think the speech was a "defining moment." He notes that Assad invoked the "drearily familiar litany of blame--foreign conspiracies, germs, fomentors of chaos, Muslim extremism."
- Unfamiliar Appearance: "Gone was the jocular president who leaned into the podium and cracked jokes with the parliament," Al Jazeera writes, "The Assad who spoke on Monday was more hesitant, hanging back from the microphones, pausing frequently to cough or clear his throat." The Arabist's Issandr El Amrani adds, "It was a technocrat's speech, not a leader or politician's speech, and he appeared rambling and perhaps even weak."
- Economy, Stupid: The AP's Zeina Karam latches on to Assad's warning that "the most dangerous thing we face in the coming period is the weakness or the collapse of the Syrian economy." The message, according to Karam, is "aimed at his supporters in the business community and prosperous merchant classes."
- No Democracy: Opposition activists are rejecting Assad's vague reference to "dialogue" and pointing out that Assad neither offered to step down nor, as opposition leader Hassan Abdul-Azim told the AP, discussed how Syria can transition "from a dictatorship into a national democratic regime with political pluralism." Indeed, protesters have reportedly taken to the streets in several locations following the speech. This footage, via The Guardian, allegedly comes from a demonstration in the northwestern city of Idlib: