DAMASCUS, Syria – Syrian President
Bashar Assad has blamed “conspirators” for an extraordinary wave of
dissent against his authoritarian rule, but he failed to lift the country’s
despised emergency law or offer any concessions in his first speech since the
protests began nearly two weeks ago.
Assad said that Syria is facing
“a major conspiracy” that aims to weaken this country of 23 million.
The Assad family has ruled Syria for nearly 40
years, using the feared security services to monitor and control even the smallest
rumblings of opposition.
Draconian laws have all but
eradicated civil liberties and political freedoms.
“We don’t seek battles,”
Assad, 45, said in an unusually short, televised speech before legislators who
cheered for him and shouted support from their seats. “But if a battle is
imposed on us, we welcome it.”
He made only a passing reference to
the protesters’ calls for change, saying “we are for reform” and
promising that certain measures were being studied.
Social networking sites immediately
exploded with activists calling on Syrians to take to the streets.
Assad’s speech was surprising not
so much for what he said but for what he left out.
His adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, said last week
that Syria had formed a committee to study a series of reforms, including
lifting the state of emergency laws, which have been in place since 1963 and
give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.
Assad had been widely expected to
formally announce the changes.
Human rights groups say more than
60 people have been killed as security forces cracked down on the
Assad, who inherited power 11 years
ago from his father, appears to be following the playbook of other autocratic
leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by offering
minor concessions coupled with brutal crackdowns.
The formula failed in Tunisia and
Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily — until people accepted
nothing less than the ouster of the regime.