BEIRUT — Ignoring mounting casualties and dwindling support, Syrian President Bashar Assad made clear to the world Sunday in his first public address in half a year that he has no intention of relinquishing power and that he, not anyone else, would dictate the end for Syria’s bloody 21-month-old civil war.
Assad unveiled his own peace plan, with cosmetic similarities to a settlement proposal championed by internationally sponsored peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, but he declared he had no partner for negotiations in the Syrian opposition, whom he continued to brand as killers and terrorists.
Assad’s dismissive attitude and strict terms for settlement offered little hope for a diplomatic breakthrough. It was a reminder of how intractable the conflict has become, with the United Nations estimating last week that more than 60,000 people have died.
Syria’s cities are scenes of carnage, with rebels and government security forces battling across provinces and major cities from Aleppo to Idlib to Damascus itself. Opposition forces, which the West has not agreed to arm, have not proved strong enough to exhaust Assad, but neither has the autocratic 12-year Syrian leader been able to stamp them out.
Assad, like Brahimi, called for a new cease-fire, reconciliation talks and some form of transitional government. But Assad sketched out a far more complicated vision, beginning with a dialogue with the opposition leading to a new national charter, approved by a referendum. That would be followed by an expanded government, including those in the talks, that would oversee the drafting of a constitution. The charter would also be approved by a national referendum, and then national elections would be held.
And where Brahimi has pushed for meaningful compromise between the rebels and the Syrian president, Assad continued to insist that all groups play according to his terms.
He put the onus on rebels for an end to fighting, announcing that his troops would honor a cease-fire only after the opposition stopped fighting and foreign countries stopped funding them, in what amounted to a swipe at Persian Gulf countries, Turkey and Western nations. His plan also appeared to go against the grain of Brahimi’s call for both sides to put down their arms. By Sunday evening, Brahimi’s office had no comment on Assad’s address.
The international community, including Russia, the United States and regional players such as Turkey, have endorsed the Brahimi plan’s broad contours. But Russia and the West have clashed over Assad’s future. Washington has insisted Assad must go, while Moscow has not, at least at this point, abandoned him, a stance also held by Iran, Syria’s closest regional ally.
Assad, speaking at Damascus’ Opera House, dismissed the opposition as “slaves” to the West, playing on the image of a deeply dysfunctional group including exiles with little influence in Syria and Al Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-affiliated organization that has become the most feared and valued fighting force among the rebels and their umbrella Free Syrian Army.
The speech was similar to his past promises of reform that have proved jarringly empty. Last February, in the midst of the civil conflict, Assad called for and won passage of a new constitution, which he said enshrined freedom of speech and multiparty elections. Months earlier, he had repealed a decades-old emergency law. But in real time, his security forces continued to detain opponents, shell neighborhoods and besiege cities.
On Sunday, standing somberly in front of a photo collage of people who reportedly have been killed in the civil warfare, Assad presented himself as a Syrian patriot, the only one capable of holding the nation together. Supporters packing the theater pumped their fists and yelled, “God, Bashar and our army.” He basked in the adulation and at times waved to the crowd.
Even with the death toll soaring and the territory under his control plummeting, Assad appeared to cling to the hope that those Syrians who have grown weary of the unrelenting conflict and the rise of radical Islamists would turn to him.
“We chose the political option from the beginning through its primary way, dialogue. We chose this to move Syria forward. But with whom are we talking? With extremists who only believe in the language of killing and terrorism?” Assad said.
Assad also papered over his government’s hard-nosed tactics of airstrikes, artillery shelling and detention of opposition suspects, calling them a necessity for the nation’s defense.
“They call it a revolution when it has no relationship to a revolution. A revolution needs intellectuals and is based on thought. Where is the thinker?” Assad said. “The revolution is usually that of the people, not of those who are imported to revolt against the people. It is a revolution against the interests of the people, so by God, are these revolutionaries?”
Opposition leaders swiftly slammed Assad’s proposals. “For us as people on the ground, the situation hasn’t changed, and during his speech 20 people died,” said activist Amer Shami from Damascus by Skype.
But Assad’s speech appeared aimed at a terrified Syrian population no longer certain of whom it should support and fearful their country could splinter. The days of spring 2011, when peaceful protesters called for government reform, have long ago been eclipsed by an armed insurgency, and Assad appears to bet even some in the opposition could be persuaded to return to his fold.
“Roughly speaking about 30 percent of Syrians want to hang Assad, another 30 percent support him, and then there are another 30 percent who long for peace and security and want to get on with their lives and are increasingly worried with how the rebels are behaving,” said Syria expert Patrick Seale, author of the definitive biography of the current leader’s father and predecessor as president, Hafez Assad.
“A good slice of the opposition will hate his speech and say they need to continue fighting, but it may plant doubt in the minds of some, that they will have to go to negotiations with Assad,” Seale said.
One Syrian activist said the rebel movement has veered so far into Islamist ideology that by contrast Assad sounds almost moderate. “Assad’s speech sounds more like the national voice, the one worried about the country from intervention and Islamization. For any neutral listener, his speech will sound ‘right’ compared to the opposition,” said the activist, who goes by the name Nadja, in a Skype interview.
“He is talking about fighting against Islamists, Afghanis and Chechens and Libyans and so on,” Nadja added. “I wouldn’t want him to make peace with terrorists because I don’t want the country to fall in their hands. But I don’t want him to stay in power either. He killed so many people.”
Even if Assad does seek to carry out his peace plan, it is hard to believe he is capable of success. He has consistently failed to follow through on his reform efforts, and at times has seemed beholden to the different interests in his government, from the security apparatus to family, who have lacked any enthusiasm for reform.
“Assad is only the front man for the institutions of the country, the security apparatus, the (Baath) party and minorities,” Seale said. “It is not a one-man show.”
Special correspondents Nabih Bulos and Alaa Hassan in Beirut contributed to this report.