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20 June 2011

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

By Samira Shackle

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.

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already taken part in discussions (despite pressure from others within the movement not to engage until troops are withdrawn) say that the problem is that that the government wants to choose who to have a dialogue with, and is not willing to accept an alternative vision for Syria.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