Assad wants to sound like he is listening -- but is he?

In his third speech since protests began, the Syrian president failed to offer a scheduled programme

In his third address to the nation since unrest in Syria began, President Bashar al-Assad offered a half-hearted attempt at conciliation but fell short of outlining the concrete, scheduled programme for reform that the opposition wanted to see.

Assad was clearly keen to sound like he has been listening. He accepted that Syria has significant internal problems -- although he kept up his description of the protests as "a conspiracy designed abroad and perpetrated in our country". While he said that Syria should deal with people's demands for reform, he claimed that a "small faction" was exploiting popular grievances. He used the word "conspiracy" so many times that it was difficult to count.

Over at the Arabist blog, Issandr El Amrani summarises the promises he made:

Assad offered a bunch of technocratic reforms: a new electoral law, a commitment to root out corruption, media reform, reform of municipal government, and the launch of a national dialogue for reform that will include 100 personalities. It was a technocrat's speech, not a leader or politician's speech, and he appeared rambling and perhaps even weak.

Indeed, this speech and its vague attempts at conciliation will do little to pacify protestors, who wanted Assad to pull out his security forces, release political prisoners, and allow protests to take place. Most see the toppling of his regime as the only way forward, and believe that it is a matter of when, not if, he goes.

The "national dialogue" might turn out to be redundant. Activists who have already taken part in discussions (despite pressure from others within the movement not to engage until troops are withdrawn) say that the problem is that that the government wants to choose who to have a dialogue with, and is not willing to accept an alternative vision for Syria.

Speaking about corruption, Assad said: "These are beautiful words but how do we implement it?" Many will be wondering the same thing of his speech.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.