Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public speech Sunday -- his first since June of last year -- and, not surprisingly, he did not step down. This did not please very many people.
“Everyone who comes to Syria knows that Syria accepts advice but not orders," Assad said, indirectly answering U.N. Syrian envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's pleas for him to step down through a peaceful negotiation process. "Who should we negotiate with — terrorists?" Assad said. "We will negotiate with their masters."
Yeah, this rare speech wasn't a big breakthrough moment in the Syrian conflict. Assad disposed more of the same blind confidence in the face of an increasingly ugly conflict in his country while refusing to step down. He did say he would negotiate a peace plan with "those who have not betrayed Syria," he said, a reference to anti-regime rebels who have not taken up arms against him. The Associated Press notes Assad promised to "organize a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution," but only after Western countries stopped funding rebel fighters. (Don't hold your breath for any of those things happening soon.)
That's not the peace plan most were hoping for. British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the speech "beyond hypocritical." A spokesperson for European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton told Reuters they, "maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition." And the rebels were certainly not happy with it, either.
"Assad simply wanted, with the initiative he proposed, to cut the road to reaching a political solution that may result from the forthcoming American-Russian meeting with (U.N. mediator Lakhdar) Brahimi, which the opposition would not accept unless he and his regime leave," National Coalition spokesman Walid Bunni told Reuters.
Comments from a rebel spokesperson to The New York Times were even stronger:
“We can’t deal with this murderous regime at all,” George Sabra, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said in a brief interview. “This regime has killed 60,000 people, so no one could possibly think that working with this regime is a possibility. It is out of the question.”
The next question will be whether U.N. envoy Brahimi has any hope of brokering a peace plan at all, or if he is serving any real purpose. What could he be expected to do when the man he is supposed to broker a peace deal with refuses to talk to the opposition? The New York Times openly questioned Brahimi's role. His office did not respond. If Brahimi were to be removed from his position, or if he were to resign, then he would be the second U.N. envoy to lose the job before the conflict was resolved. Kofi Annan was the first.